Ralphie from A Christmas Story outruns a vicious killer in Death Valley, a silly but entertaining slasher that received a very limited theatrical run back in 1982. Alongside the wide-eyed, innocent Peter Billingsley are Catherine Hicks from Child's Play and Paul Le Mat, and their vacation to California turns into a nightmare when they cross tracks with a madman. Billingsley acts without pretense or vanity as a young boy dealing with his parents' recent divorce, and Director Dick Richards wisely places his young star front and center for most of the action. Death Valley is not particularly suspenseful, but exudes enough dusty charm to make it worth renting.
Young Billy (Billingsley) joins his mother Sally (Hicks) and her new boyfriend Mike (Le Mat) on a trip out West to see the Grand Canyon and California's Death Valley. The area is the current stomping ground of a ruthless killer, whose identity is hidden by cowboy garb. When the trio stops for a break, Billy enters the motor home of a freshly murdered couple and finds a strange frog pendant. In a moment of weakness, Billy takes the trinket and cements his connection with the killer. Death Valley has a sort of "gee golly" goodness thanks to Billingsley, and the lack of suspense is not a fatal flaw thanks to the likable young lead and the film's unintentionally funny '80s goodness.
Richards, also who produced Tootsie and directed a couple of other films, including March or Die with Gene Hackman, crafts a road-trip thriller that meanders along before hitting the gas during its finale. Billy and company hit a few hot spots on the way to Death Valley, including a frontier town where Billy almost gets his head blown off, as the killer tracks their movements. As the protagonists travel the dusty roads of eastern California, an aging sheriff (Wilford Brimley) investigates the recent murders and follows up on a hunch about the killer's identity.
The parent/child dynamic between Sally and Billy feels genuine, as does Billy's reluctance to embrace Mike. This family drama is the best part of Death Valley, which is not especially impressive in the kills department. There are a couple of nasty throat slashings, but Richards builds little anticipation before going for the jugular. The identity of the killer is not much of a surprise, either, although Death Valley whips out a ridiculously under-supported twist during the finale that is effectuated using slow motion and over-the-top mood music.
Despite its inherent B-movie weaknesses, there are more than few treats to be found within Death Valley. Where did Sally find the portly babysitter for Billy at a random hotel in the middle of nowhere? Why does Mike order a glass of milk with his chili? Will kids ever be allowed to roam as unattended as they did in 1982? When Death Valley hits its big showdown, the killer begins throwing everything in reach through a window to strike Sally and Billy. Rocks, hubcaps and beams all come flying through the portal in this gleefully over-the-top scene. Death Valley isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it represents a kind of upbeat family horror film not made today.
The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer for this 30-year-old film is surprisingly excellent. Detail is abundant in the bright, clear image, which is almost completely free of print defects. I was shocked to discover backgrounds that stretch for miles into the desert, and close-ups that reveal minute facial details and solid texture. There's probably been a bit of digital smoothing here, but the image's overall clarity is strong. Black levels are good, and I noticed little aliasing and no compression artifacts.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is perfectly adequate, with nice separation and range. Dialogue is clear, action effects occasionally waft into the rear speakers, and musical cues get a bit of subwoofer support. A 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also included, as are English subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Shout Factory! is fast becoming the Criterion Collection for genre films. Death Valley makes its high-def debut in a Blu-ray/DVD "combo pack." The discs are packed in standard Blu-ray case, and the two-sided artwork features some vintage photos visible on the inside of the case. This disc isn't as loaded as other recent Shout Factory! releases, but it's nice to have the film in HD. Extras include an informative Commentary from Director Dick Richards, the film's trailer (2:08/HD), a TV spot (0:26/HD) and bonus previews.
God bless the 1980s nostalgia of films like Death Valley. The movie is by no means great horror, but this road-trip slasher benefits from a vanity free performance by young Peter Billingsley. In this little-seen film, young Billy joins his mom and her new boyfriend on a trip out West, only to cross tracks with a brutal killer. The film lacks suspense but remains an entertaining slice of '80s horror cheese. Shout Factory! does a nice job on the Blu-ray, too! Recommended for fans, everyone else might want to Rent It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.