Watch out: there's a tale of terror in them there hills

When two travellers are stranded in a remote part of Scotland scary things start to happen. That's right, says Matthew Sweet, the British horror film is back

Bleak, nihilistic terror: it was something British cinema used to do so well. In the 1960s and Seventies, film-makers from – or temporarily resident in – these islands, gave the conventions of exploitation cinema a twist, and began to produce work that combined the pleasures of the horror film and the art film. Roman Polanski made a pair of thrillers – Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion – using cash from a strip-joint owner and a distribution company who marketed French nouvelle vague films to British audiences as sex movies. Michael Reeves toasted hapless lickspittles in The Witchfinder General; Robin Hardy immolated Edward Woodward and some goats inside the belly of The Wicker Man; Sam Peckinpah staged acts of atavistic violence in the Cornish countryside for Straw Dogs. It was a golden age of savagery and pessimism. And David Mackenzie's debut feature, The Last Great Wilderness, is a gesture back to those times.

Unless you're the sort of person who reads the credits on Monarch of the Glen, Mackenzie's name will probably mean nothing to you. He's on the brink, however, of much wider recognition. In a couple of weeks, the Cannes Film Festival will unfurl the red carpet for the premiere of his second feature, Young Adam – an existentialist thriller starring Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan, based on Alexander Trocchi's cult novella. ("Ewan looks older," he enthuses. "Looks more of a man. It's a step in a new direction for him.") And in July, he begins shooting with Natasha Richardson on Asylum, an adaptation of Patrick McGrath's novel from a script by Patrick Marber. (As I talk to him, Mackenzie is holed up with the latest draft, sustained only by the extensive room service menu of a chi-chi Glasgow hotel.)

His first film, however, was shot with more humble resources than these starry projects, and with an artistic freedom for which Mackenzie already seems to feel nostalgic. "The chance to make a film for half a million quid without anybody breathing down your neck and telling you what to do is a very nice one," he explains. "But the more money you have on a project the surer you have to be about it finding an audience." The Last Great Wilderness, in contrast, was a family affair. Mackenzie wrote the script in collaboration with his brother, Alistair – another Monarch of the Glen alumnus – who is also the star of the film. The pair grew up in Perthshire, and a shared sense of childhood unease was the starting point for the picture. "It began as something much more like Straw Dogs," explains the director, "because that's what we used to feel, as we were growing up – that it was very easy to imagine, walking around the highlands, that some angry farmer might be aiming at you with his high-powered telescopic rifle. The highlands are not the last great wilderness. You're not more than a day's walk away from a large centre of population. But you do get the weird sense that they are, potentially, an unpoliceable and anarchic territory."

The film's protagonists are Charlie (Alistair Mackenzie), a vengeful cuckold on the way to torch his rival's holiday home, and Vicente (Jonathan Phillips), a male escort who spends the first two reels of the film pretending to be Spanish. This being a picture with an acute sense of the Gothic tradition, they run out of petrol on an isolated stretch of moorland, where the only refuge is a retreat run by a sinister therapist (played by Ewan Stewart, in a performance pitched somewhere between Ronnie Laing and Ronnie Kray). As the car chugs to a halt, it's impossible not the think of the opening scene of Cul-de-Sac, in which two bloodied crims struggle towards the sanctuary of Donald Pleasence's castle. "Polanski is an absolute genius," acknowledges Mackenzie. "I don't think many film-makers set out to imitate other films, but you've gathered your knowledge and you can't help it coming out."

So did he consciously set out to mix exploitation techniques with something more high-minded? "Throw in a bit of trash and a bit of art, you mean? Maybe. Horror is a very interesting genre. I still can't watch most horror films because I get too scared. But horror offers an incredible way to be sensual and to deal with, in a commercial context, some of the issues that you associate with art films. There are only some elements of horror in the film, but there are many moments in which we're playing the genre's games."

But the refreshing aspect of Mackenzie's approach is the straightness of his game. The Last Great Wilderness does not delight exposing the absurdity of its conventions. Its characters do not make self-conscious jokes about The Wicker Man. Instead, the film returns to the plot of a hundred low-budget horror flicks – two travellers stranded in a remote outpost filled with suspicious characters – and, declining to find it silly, discovers a much more interesting set of elements: tenderness, humour, pathos, and, ultimately, an act of heinous barbarism. "I've been ranting on for years to some of my friends about the New Sincerity," admits Mackenzie. "Growing up in Nineties irony-obsessed Britain, I've tried to fight against it a little bit. As a human being, I'm anti-irony. I'm completely bored by it." Next week, he'll find out whether a paying audience agrees.

'The Last Great Wilderness', (18), is out on Friday