Dir: Marcus Adams. UK. 2003. 90 mins

UK commercials and music video director Marcus Adams, whose first film Long Time Dead was a big hit at the UK box office in 2002, where it took $3m after opening on 233 screens, returns with a bigger cast and budget for his second feature Octane, a self-assured road movie-cum-horror flick which has considerable mileage as a home entertainment hit even if its theatrical potential is limited by its genre trappings. The film, which opened Cine Vegas this week, is scheduled to be released in the UK via Buena Vista in the autumn.

Octane takes place entirely in one night as a woman drives her daughter home from a weekend visit with her divorced husband. It asks the question: who are the people you see in rest stops at night' With a spooky score by electronic hitmakers Orbital and the roads of Luxembourg convincingly standing in for an unspecified US highway, Adams paints a scary milieu whose impact on the nerves is marred only by the silliness of the story's outcome, as is so often the case with genre pictures whose mystery is always more satisfying than its resolution.

The film begins with a haunting image of paramedics removing a dying man from an overturned car on a freeway. Only when sirens are heard coming from the distance do we realise that they are not paramedics at all but scavengers stealing the body. Cut to the excellent Madeleine Stowe who is suitably caustic as Senga, a tired professional woman resentful at her ex-husband for moving six hours away, forcing her to drive on the freeway on a Sunday night to collect her daughter Nat (Barton). Exhausted after a hectic week and testy with her adolescent daughter, she can barely stay awake at the wheel of her SUV.

So tired that she might be seeing things - including a couple picknicking by the side of the road at the same accident spot we have just seen - Senga and Nat pull over to a rest stop. There she pops some pills and has a coffee but is disturbed by a hallucination of a preacher on the TV screen and by the couple from the accident who are having dinner at the same stop. Back in the car, much to Senga's annoyance, Nat has invited a hitch-hiker (Phillips) to join them. The girl talks like a hippie of her travels in India and puts on a CD of Indian music, showing Nat her pierced navel and displaying a hostile streak to the cynical Senga.

After they have dropped her off, Nat gets a call from her father saying that she has forgotten her birthday gift and that he should drive out to meet them at a rest stop. Reluctantly Senga agrees but, when they meet with her ex-husband, she fights with Nat again when she realises that the gift consists of tickets to a rock concert she has forbidden Nat to attend. The two argue and Nat storms off. When Senga has cooled down, she sees Nat getting into a mobile home with the hitch-hiker and the strange couple.

The rest of the film follows Senga as she pursues the mobile home, tracking them down to a car factory where Nat is being seduced by a cult leader called The Father (Rhys Meyers). With the aid of a mysterious Recovery Man (Reedus), she discovers that the cult abducts women from the freeways at night and turns them into blood-sucking scavengers who cause road accidents to feed on the victims.

Adams has a confident visual style, effectively capturing Senga's moments of dozy consciousness before nodding off. Indeed her half-awake, half-asleep state could have been used to more dramatic effect to heighten the ambiguity of the plot a la Gaslight or Suspicion. Nevertheless, Stowe's strident and underused screen presence makes it eminently watchable and helps lift Octane out of the ordinary.

Prod cos: Four Horsemen Films/Random Harvest, High Octane Productions, Delux Productions
Worldwide sales:
Overseas Filmgroup
Exec prods:
Melvyn Singer, Tim Smith, Carlo Dusi, Bill Allan
Alistair MacLean-Clark, Basil Stephens
Stephen Volk
Robin Vidgeon
Prod des:
Max Gottlieb
Trevor Waite
Orbital, Simon Boswell
Main cast:
Madeleine Stowe, Norman Reedus, Bijou Phillips, Mischa Barton, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Leo Gregory