Charlie Cox (Matt Frewer) is a divorced writer who lives in Los Angeles. Charlie and his daughter Joleen (Drew Barrymore) are on their way home from a cross country vacation when they run out of gas in Banco, Nevada, a small town located in a remote part of the desert.
It's the day before Joleen's 14th birthday. When they stop in the Banco Supermarket, they notice that there's no one behind the counter, but sheriff Bill Childers (Dick Miller) is in the store. When Joleen looks at the floor behind the counter, she screams. That's because she has just seen the body of the store's owner, Ferrell Hovis, in a pool of blood.
Charlie and Joleen later check a nearby gas station owned by a friendly Vietnam war veteran named Duckett (Richard Masur), but Duckett is not expecting to have any gas delivered to the station for at least another few days, so Charlie and Joleen check into the nearby Palomino Guest Ranch and Trailer Park, which is owned by a hostile and abusive landlady named Agnes Reed (Susan Tyrell). Joleen soon meets Agnes's troubled and abused teenage son Jimmy Reed (Andras Jones). On that same night, while Agnes is taking a bath, Agnes is killed when a hand reaches in through her bathroom window and pushes a small fan into the bathtub water, electrocuting her.
That night, Charlie and Joleen also meet their neighbors, fellow travelers Louise (Karen Austin) and Amy (Jennifer Tilly). On the next day, when the sex-starved Jimmy tries to rape Joleen, Joleen is rescued by Pinky Sears (Anthony Rapp), another teenager who lives at the guest ranch. Pinky is shy and quiet, and seems to have a docile attitude towards Joleen. Pinky tells Joleen that he lives with his widowed mother at the trailer park, whom is sick and that she should stay away from Jimmy whom has a bad reputation stemming from lifelong childhood abuse by his mother.
Later that day, Charlie and Joleen agree to car pool with Louise and Amy to leave the trailer park. When Amy enters Agnes Reed's trailer to talk to her about checking out, her abused daughter is there claiming that her mother is taking a bath and cannot be disturbed. After a while, when the little girl says that her mother has not come out of the bathroom all night, Amy investigates and discovers the dead body. As the police take Agnes' body away, Sheriff Childers tells Charlie and Joleen to stick around for more questioning.
That evening, as Charlie and Joleen are about to leave the guest ranch, the unseen killer punctures the gas tank of Amy and Louise' car, and sets fire to the line of gasoline, blowing up the car (with Amy in it) to prevent Joleen from leaving. After the police and local fire department clear away this latest crime scene, Joleen becomes aware that is now obsessed with her when she finds her diary missing (having been stolen by the killer).
The next day, when the hot-tempered Jimmy tries to rob Duckett's gas station to fleet town and gets bested by Duckett, Jimmy is accused not only of trying to rob the gas station, but he's also accused of the murders of Ferrell, Agnes, and Amy.
Duckett goes to Pinky's trailer, where he discovers that Pinky's mother has been dead for some time, and her decomposing body is covered with bags of ice. The kind-hearted and passive Pinky (revealed here to be the killer) shows up and stabs Duckett with a screwdriver, and then leaves him for dead. When Joleen goes to Pinky's hideaway to hang out with him, she finds her diary, and comes to the realization that Pinky is the killer.
When the injured Duckett radios Sheriff Childer's car and tells the sheriff and Charlie that Pinky has Joleen, Bill and Charlie head to the hideaway to find Pinky and Joleen. At the hideaway, Pinky kills the sheriff.
Pinky chases Joleen up to the top platform on a nearby radio tower. Charlie tries to get up on the platform, but Pinky stops Charlie by cutting Charlie's hand. Pinky says that he thought Joleen loved him. Duckett, who is sitting in a nearby vehicle with a rifle in his hands, fires a shot that causes Pinky to fall off of the tower. Pinky dies when he lands in a large satellite dish below.
Later, Duckett explains about Pinky keeping his mother's body iced, and then explains what he has figured out -- that Pinky started slipping over the edge before Pinky ever met Joleen. The passive, but dangerously-disturbed Pinky has been keeping ice on his mother's body for weeks and leaving her TV on because he didn't want to believe that she got sick and died-- he really didn't want to believe she was gone. Pinky had to somehow get food for himself, so when Pinky went to the supermarket to get food, and Ferrell denied him, he shot and killed Ferrell. Pinky had to live somewhere, so when Agnes went after Pinky, angrily demanding that Pinky pay rent that he couldn't afford, Pinky killed Agnes. Pinky became obsessed with Joleen, so when Joleen, Charlie, Amy, and Louise went to leave, Pinky blew up the car with Amy in it to stop Joleen from leaving.
With everything resolved, Charlie, Joleen, and Louise leave Banco in Charlie's car having been refueled, and they head home to California.