Death Valley Blu-ray Review
Directed by Dick Richards
Written by Richard Rothstein
1982, Region A, 87 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on December 11th, 2012
Paul Le Mat as Mike
Catherine Hicks as Sally
Peter Billingsley as Billy
Stephen McHattie as Hal
Wilford Brimley as Sheriff
Edward Hermann as Paul
Sally, a chipper divorcee, drags her son on a vacation out west to take a break from their busy New York lifestyle and for him to get to meet her new boyfriend. Young Billy is less than excited to leave his father behind, but reluctantly agrees to give the situation a chance. It turns out mom’s new boyfriend Mike is actually a pretty decent guy determined to gain Billy’s approval despite the kid’s chilly reception. What this trip needs is some excitement and a stop at a popular ‘old west’ town complete with cowboys, gunfights and other things tourists generally view as awesome is in order.
When the group stops to enjoy the scenery along the way, Billy discovers an “abandoned” motor home, where he snoops around and steals a necklace, because that’s what bored little boys do when acting out. Unfortunately, the vehicle is not really abandoned, but the occupants have recently checked out of the hotel of life and their murderer is still in the immediate area — watching Billy. What follows is a nice game of cat-and-mouse with the serial killer pursuing the possible witness while the local sheriff deals with a long string of unsolved murders.
Death Valley is an oddball sort of spin on the work of Alfred Hitchcock; a thriller released during the golden age of slasher films, more interested in building suspense than a gory body count. Director Dick Richards (who went on to helm 1986’s Heat, starring Burt Reynolds) is certainly no Hitchcock, but he successfully builds tension while developing sympathetic characters. It is with the elements of graphic violence that he seems most uncomfortable, as the kills occur either off camera or feel rushed and a bit low rent, particularly the first throat slashing. Nudity is also a bit of a sticking point, as the limited appearance of bare breasts plays like an afterthought. Richards focuses his attention on the family dynamic and the film carries an “after school special” vibe that would fit comfortably late at night on the Lifetime channel.
The story unfolds at a deliberate pace, but at times there is a sluggishness that works against the material. Luckily for Richards, the script written by Richard Rothstein (Universal Soldier) is well crafted. It is deep into the running time before any of our heroes knows they are in immediate danger. The film looks great thanks in large part to cinematographer Stephen Burhum (Something Wicked This Way Comes), who takes every opportunity to include the natural beauty of the Mohave Desert with wide shots that at the same time manage to depict both the isolation of the location and the vulnerability of the characters. These sequences are balanced with a series of claustrophobic set pieces involving the child hiding from the killer.
One thing that sets this film apart is the amount of material involving the young lead. Ten-year-old Peter Billingsly (A Christmas Story) acts his ass off in this, his first feature performance, carrying the film with a sincerity seldom seen from child actors. He is instantly sympathetic as the boy caught in the position of watching his newly divorced mother finding happiness with a new man. Catherine Hicks (Child’s Play) delivers a nice performance as the responsible adult unaware of the lurking danger, and does her best to remain credible despite some odd behavior required by the script to make the third act plausible.
Paul Le Mat (Strange Invaders) is instantly likeable as the guy in the unfortunate position of winning a ten-year-old’s approval before he can start a relationship with the kid’s hot mom. He and Billingsly play well off each other and have a nice chemistry that is never forced or creepy. The supporting cast is particularly strong, starting with an early appearance by Edward Herrman (The Lost Boys) as Billy’s father, who manages to reveal a powerful emotional bond despite only a few minutes of screen time. Wilford Brimley (The Thing) and Stephen McHattie (A History of Violence) are both welcome additions as their scenes together are some of the most uncomfortable and memorable in the picture. One final cast shout-out deservedly goes to Mary Steelsmith (Weird Science), who is awesome as the most awkward babysitter in cinema. Her scene is a definite highlight.
Many involved in this production formed long lasting relationships in the industry including editor Joel Cox, who has worked consistently with Clint Eastwood for three decades. Stephen Burhum continued to emulate the look of Hitchcock, as he shot almost a dozen pictures for Brian DePalma (starting with Body Double). Richard Rothstein created the HBO series The Hitchhiker, in which many actors from Death Valley appear in guest starring roles. Dick Richards went on to produce Tootsie for Sydney Pollack and Peter Billingsly is now a successful producer of films including Iron Man.
Shout! Factory continues to impress with their willingness to include forgotten titles in their new retro Scream Factory lineup as opposed to simply hitting home runs with tent-pole franchises. This is not a horror flick, but I always found the poster art creepy and the video tape (featuring the same artwork) was always eye catching at the rental stores. It is not a bad movie by any stretch, but until now it has never been available outside of VHS or late night cable screenings. Death Valley’s elusive reputation may be hard to live up to for contemporary audiences, but it is definitely worth a look.
Video and Audio:
Presented in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Death Valley debuts in a post VHS format with a surprisingly strong transfer that restores the beauty of the desert landscapes. Black levels are rich and solid while flesh tones remain natural without any noticeable digital smearing or compression issues. Colors are occasionally muted but appear deliberately so and brightness levels are strikingly improved over the murky prints that played various cable television outlets in decades past.
Shout! Factory offers a solid DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio lossless audio mix and a DTS HD 2.0 MA track that preserves the original stereo presentation. Not an overly aggressive presentation, but the surround speakers get some play during the final showdown with the killer. Dialogue is always clear and free from distortion and English subtitles are provided.
Only a limited amount of special features are offered up on this disc, the best of which is a commentary track with director Dick Richards, moderated by Edwin Samuleson (Cinephiles). Richards reflects on the film’s production and keeps things moving with nice anecdotes about the cast and crew.
Trailers and TV spots for Death Valley are joined by the preview for The Island (also coming to Blu-ray from Scream Factory).
A DVD format of the film is also included.
*Note: The screenshots on this page are not a reflection of the Blu-ray image. They were captured using the standard DVD.*
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