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Thursday, October 3, 2013

31 Days of Scream-O-Ween! - Death Valley

By David Massey



If you’d heard nothing about ‘Death Valley’ and never seen the poster, you’d get about a quarter through the film still thinking it was an overly angsty kid’s movie about dealing with divorce. To your surprise, you’d find that the film is one of the most gussied-up, glitzy actor'd, low-brow slasher flicks every made, fitting quite well amongst Scream Factory’s Blu-Ray revival of all things weird and terrifying.


 Death Valley

The Film:

Despite an impressive cast, it’s really no surprise if you haven’t heard of this one – I hadn’t and I’m a child of the 80’s. In 1982, with slasher films reaching their apex of interest, and audiences demanding more and more outlandish scenarios, director Dick Richards (better known for westerns and noir) set out to make a serious suspense thriller told from a young boy’s perspective. Fortunately (or otherwise), he succeeded only in finding a bizarre new genre-limbo somewhere between ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ and ‘Slumber Party Massacre’; ‘Death Valley’ is a bit of an awkward fit.

Billy, played by Peter Billingsley (‘A Christmas Story’), is as sublime a ‘natural’ as ever there was in the role of the young boy in question. He lives in Manhattan with his father, a rather sophisticated businessman played by Edward Herrmann (‘The Lost Boys’) and is about to take a vacation out west with his mother (Catherine Hicks – ‘Child’s Play’) and her corn-fed boyfriend (Paul Le Mat – ‘American Graffiti’). There’s no question that Billy is none too pleased at the prospect but he’s immediately shown to be both mature and intelligent enough to cope.

Aside from Billy’s misplaced distrust of his mother’s new beau, the newly-formed family unit begins a trek across the deserts of Arizona with only the mildest of dysfunction in tow. Our first hint that the story will dive into dread comes when Billy notices an ominous old Cadillac passing on the highway; the scene recalls Spielberg’s ‘Duel’ or Carpenter’s ‘Christine’. From here the film spirals down into a bloody-red murder mystery with Billingsley as the hunted witness and Wilford Brimley (‘The Thing’) as the bumbling highway cop without any hope of protecting this unsuspecting family from a mysterious killer.

There really is a punch about a third of the way into the film (around the time we see a completely obligatory topless vixen and tomato-soup-red blood pouring from the neck of a victim – whose killing has no motivation by the way) that the whole tone turns on its head. ‘Death Valley’ feels a bit like 2 movies with 2 different directors - who have vastly different goals - just collaged together without much care or purpose. It’s no wonder that Universal didn’t really know what to do with this one; it sat in a can for over a year before it was released. Purpose aside, I sat down and tried to figure out why this film doesn’t work and, in doing so, I found myself with a list of all the reasons it does: big names, epic cinematography (filmed almost entirely on location), Wilford Brimley, 1980’s nostalgia (see ‘SIMON’), unapologetic child-in-peril scenario, and neon-orange blood splattered across half of the movie. What’s not to like?


The Disc:

The picture here is gorgeous with the perfect amount of film grain and color saturation but ‘Death Valley’ definitely has the fewest bells and whistles of the Scream Factory releases I’ve viewed to date. The packaging cover has the original one-sheet with some stills on the inside and you get a copy on DVD as well as Blu-Ray. There is an original Theatrical Trailer and TV Spot; one of which (kind of) presents the film like a Dukes of Hazard episode, introducing each of the characters in a folksy who-done-it manner – very odd.

The highlight of the features – and by highlight I mean the greatest amount of good intentions resulting in disappointing results – is the commentary with the director, Dick Richards. In his defense, he has lived a long life and I’m sure this film isn’t the highpoint but his level of disinterest is a bit shocking. By half-way in, almost every question posed by the interviewer results in ‘I don’t remember’ or ‘yes/no’. By the end, Richards seems to be completely ignoring the questions and we get long periods of complete silence. If you are a fan of this man’s work, he does talk quite a bit about his career and it might be worth your time but, otherwise, I’d just focus on the film and give the commentary a pass.

The Features:

  • Audio Commentary with Director Dick Richards
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • TV Spot 

The Specs:

  • 1080p High-Definition Widescreen 1.78.1
  • DTS HD Master Audio Mono
  • English-only Audio & Subtitles
  • Original Release: 1982
  • Runtime: 87 Minutes
  • Rated R

Final Grades:

  • Story: B / If Spielberg made slasher films, this would be his first.
  • Presentation: A / The epic desert locations look amazing.
  • Scare Factor: C / There are some good ‘jump-out’ bits that might make you jump.
  • Gore Factor: D / Neon-Orange blood doesn’t really cut it for true gore.
  • Repeat view-ability: D / It drags a bit.
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