Death Valley (Scream Factory Blu-ray)
Directors - Dick Richards
Cast - Paul LeMat, Catherine Hicks
Country of Origin - USA
Discs - 2
Distributor - Shout Factory
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 02/17/13
The Film: 2/5
Newly divorced Sally (Catherine Hicks) wants to take her son Billy (Peter Billingsley) on a road trip through the Arizona desert with her new boyfriend Mike (Paul Le Mat), though Billy would rather spend the time in New York with his proud Princeton professor papa Paul (Edward Herrmann). Despite Mike's best efforts to forge a bond with the brainy child Billy seems uninterested in the prospect of another father figure. As the vacation awkwardly progresses the makeshift family unit begins to notice strange goings-on in the area. During a roadside break Billy wanders into a motor home and snatches a golden medallion, but fortunately does not discover the three dead bodies hidden behind a curtain. It just so happens that a serial killer has claimed five victims in the community that was once a hot spot for gold mining but now survives as a Wild West tourist attraction. When the motor home and its grisly contents are found burned to a crisp by the side of the road the local sheriff (Wilford Brimley) ties the medallion given to him in regret by Billy to Hal (Stephen McHattie), a loner who works as a waiter at the restaurant Billy recently stopped at with his mother and Mike. The medallion belongs to Stu, Hal's elusive brother, and now it has fallen to Hal to track down and eliminate Billy and his family before the crimes he committed with his unseen sibling are exposed.
Death Valley that wants to be two things at once - a family-friendly road trip story with opportunities for scenes of male bonding to tug hard at the heartstrings, and a bloody slasher flick. Movies that embrace multiple genres rarely succeed but when they do they are deservedly lionized as classics. The problem with Death Valley is that it never adequately balances its genres; it is either too much of the former and not enough of the latter, that is until the final reel when the movie suddenly remembers that it is supposed to be a horror movie too and starts running around like a decapitated chicken attempting to wrap its hanging plot threads up. The main plot with Sally, Mike, and Billy taking a scenic road trip and trying to have a good time works decently enough though the idea, though relatable, is pedestrian in the hands of director Dick Richards, who made some awfully films in the 1970's like the western The Culpepper Cattle Company and the Raymond Chandler adaptation Farewell My Lovely (with Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe), and screenwriter Richard Rothstein. Neither man had ever dabbled in the horror genre prior to making Death Valley and it shows: the pacing is sorely off most of the time and whenever the chance to deliver some genuine frights presents itself it gets botched big time. Some gruesome throat slashings and a pickaxe to the chest are about as gory as the special effects get but Richards and editor Joel Cox, a longtime collaborator of Clint Eastwood, always cut away when the red stuff starts pouring. That is probably for the best because every time the killer opens up a few veins it looks like the prop knife has a tube attached to it squirting out melted red crayons. This stuff would not pass muster on an episode of C.S.I., and it would make Tom Savini toss his cookies in offense.
Death Valley is highly indicative of the major studios' pitiful attempts to cash in on the thriving slasher sub-genre. Too often it functions like a made-for-TV movie of the week with a little extra blood thrown in. The best slasher movies were politically incorrect, full tilt boogie extravaganzas of sweat-inducing suspense and spectacular Las Vegas fountains of gore that were never afraid to operate at the highest volume possible and piss off the establishment in the process if it meant bringing grandiose gruesome thrills to the masses and raking in millions of dollars in profits. But the makers of Death Valley act like they are trying to avoid waking up the neighbors. It does not help the movie any that just about every character, with the exception of Billy, is a complete moron just begging for death, especially McHattie's unhinged loony. Towards the end when Billy has inadvertently jumped into the backseat of the killer's car Mike is able to ascertain his possible whereabouts just after overhearing a conversation between some locals in a bar. The final confrontation between the killer and the horrified vacationers should play out with heightened terror and suspense but McHattie's goofy antics and a last scene revelation that is handled with such idiocy that unintentional laughter is inevitable drain every ounce of tension from the proceedings. None of the actors stand out but they all do solid, professional work: Paul Le Mat is the capable lead, Catherine Hicks the skittish mother, and Peter Billingsley the precocious child who sometimes Le Mat looks like he wants to throttle. Wilford Brimley is barely in the movie long enough to be considered a cameo as is Edward Herrmann. Brimley's sheriff character does one of the dumbest things I have ever seen a horror movie character do, and bear in mind I have seen every Friday the 13th sequel. Herrmann on the other hand has the movie's single finest scene when he explains his divorce from Sally to Billy better than most actual parents could do. It is a poignant moment that you would expect more of in the film but the burgeoning relationship between Billy and Mike has absolutely no pay-off. McHattie should make for a fine psycho freak but his performance is restrained and workmanlike when it should be blood-soaked and swinging from the rafters, bug-eyed and laughing madly.
The blaring music score by Dana Kaproff announced the killer's presence at every turn and that gets irritating pretty quick. Richards' best asset on the technical side is the sun-drenched cinematography by Stephen H. Burum, the gentleman who would go on to lend his impressive eye for celluloid imagery to every movie made by Brian DePalma over the next two decades as well as St. Elmo's Fire, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The War of the Roses.
Shout!'s 1080p high-definition 1.78:1 widescreen transfer looks solid even when it is accompanying such an unstylish and unexceptional feature, and the desert scenery looks very drab and oppressive. Grain is kept to a pleasing minimum and there are very little signs of print damage. English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks have been provided; for a home theater set-up your best bet would be to go with the five-channel track that can be immersive at times, but Kaproff's blaring score may be too much to handle at times. For standard set-ups the 2.0 does just nicely. English subtitles are also included.
Director Richards sits down for a new audio commentary moderated by Edwin Samuelson of the CineFiles. It is not a particularly good track because Richards often has very little to say about the actual movie, despite Samuelson's attempts to keep him on the subject, and his indiscernible ramblings lean heavily on his Hollywood directing career as a whole. Every so often the director does offer up some mildly interesting tidbits of trivia related to the making of Death Valley but unless you really love the movie I highly doubt you will be willing to sit through the entire commentary just for those random moments.
A trailer and TV spot for the movie and trailers for The Island and They Live round out this rather slim extra features selection. A DVD copy is also included in this combo pack.
A very confused attempt to unite two disparate genres and failing miserably in the execution, Death Valley only succeeds when it concentrates on the relationships between its three main characters. Since those moments are rare the movie becomes an endurance test where you find yourself challenged to avoid screaming at your television screen when a character who is seemingly intelligent does something completely stupid. Technically solid on the presentation front with an okay audio commentary, Shout!'s release of this deserved obscurity in 80's horror is for slasher movie completists only.