It's been a trying year for the Glynn family, so dad Neil (Dennis Weaver) organizes an end-of-the-summer family trip for his wife Arlene (Estelle Parsons) and two college-aged kids, DeeDee (Susan Dey) and Steve (Kristoffer Tabori). They hit the road in their yellow Open Road camper van on the way to the secluded "Dune Beach" for a weekend of camping, fishing, clam digging and some much-needed family bonding. Like with most other families, some deep-seeded issues and inter-generational conflicts arise that needed worked out. Steve has just completed his first year of college but wants to drop out, much to the horror of his father. Neil has been working so hard he's been neglecting Arlene and she perhaps needs more attention than ever because both of her kids are now out of the house and she has no clue what to do with herself. And DeeDee, who's resigned herself to the role of playing peacekeeper and adopted a goody goody routine around her folks, has had a taste of women's lib in school so now she has a hard time relating to her homemaker mother. It seems everyone's been fighting and arguing a lot recently and Neil's hoping the trip will be a good chance for the family to reset and get their bearings. But like they always say, there's nothing like clashing with a group of desert-dwelling psychos to bring a family closer together. Just ask the Carter family from The Hills Have Eyes.
Before they even reach the beach, the Glynn clan have two run-ins with a strange group of aimless, obnoxious hippies whose mode of transport are some dune buggies and a vintage fire engine. They first run them right off the road and then fool them into thinking they're broken down just to annoy them. Steve wants to go to the police immediately, but Neil (who the thugs dub "Mr. White Bread") suggests they just ignore them and go about their business. After the family arrive at the beach, things quickly begin to escalate. The hippies crash their dinner and eat their food, destroy their campsite, ogle DeeDee in her bikini and scare Neil by dressing a mannequin in his daughter's clothes and lying it face down in the water. By the time Neil finally decides to pack up and get the family out of there, they discover the radiator cap from the camper has been stolen so they can't go anywhere. The goons then proceed to terrorize them all night long into the next day; blasting wild animals sounds using radio equipment, hiding a microphone and playing back their personal conversations, tipping over the van with them in it and chasing them around the dunes with their buggies trying to run them over. Neil finally must confront the gang face-to-face in order to protect his family.
Terror on the Beach is one of many films from the decade with an "It's either you or them" mantra and featuring a mild-mannered "normal" pacifist driven to violence out of sheer necessity to protect himself, his loved ones and / or his way of life. These kind of movies; spearheaded by the success of such films as Straw Dogs (1971) and Deliverance (1972), were extremely popular at the time. Beach also brings in another popular 70s theme: the violent hippie cult; something else common in this post-Manson family era. Minus the cannibalism and gore, this is actually extremely similar to the aforementioned The Hills Have Eyes, with a vacationing middle class family being terrorized in a dusty, desert area and having to become the aggressors in order to survive. Because it was a made-for-TV movie, the thrills are tame, the bad guys don't seem as threatening and it doesn't have the luxury of graphic violence for impact like many of the theatrical releases. Nevertheless, the film manages to say what it wants to say and do so in an intelligent yet far less exploitative manner since it depends largely on its cast and a multi-layered and thoughtful script by Bill Svanoe.
Unfairly demonizing the generally peaceful youth counterculture (who were given quite the bad rap by Manson and company) was a trap many of these films fell into and this likewise presents the 'bad guys' in a one-dimensional fashion and refuses to characterize any of them. However, this is effectively counteracted by giving the children - not their parents - the upper hand in dealing with the hippies. They are, after all, still within the same peer group, so it makes perfect sense. Steve wants to go to the police before things get out of hand, and he's right. They should have and would have if not for Neil's outmoded way of dealing with matters. When the hippies manage to get the mom and daughter alone, it's actually the daughter who knows how to calmly and effectively handle the situation so it doesn't get out of hand, not her flustered mother. It's also worth noting that it's an act of undeserved compassion on DeeDee's part that ultimately saves her family, not the violent retribution of her father. The film allows both kids the opportunity to be defiant of the ideals and expectations of the past generation, but in a non-violent and positive way, and is uncommonly well-rounded in exploring its subject matter, which elevates it above many similar tales. The shooting locations (California's Pismo Beach) are very nice as well, and the cinematography is above par for a 70s TV movie.
The cast includes Scott Hylands (who also did a great job playing psycho in the vastly underrated DADDY'S GONE A-HUNTING ) as the sociopath hippie ringleader Jerry, Michael Christian (who went on to play the title role in the exploitation favorite Poor Pretty Eddie ), drive-in movie goddess Roberta Collins (who's completely wasted here as one of the hippie chicks), Jacqueline Giroux (ditto) and 80s women-in-prison staple Carole Ita White (also of TV's "Laverne and Shirley"). This CBS TV Movie of the Week has never officially been on VHS or DVD, though there are black market copies available and it turns up on the Fox Movie Channel on occasion.