I have to admit that I’d just about forgotten 1982’s Death Valley - a violent-yet-sophisticated 1982 thriller lost amidst the era’s slasher craze - existed until Scream Factory recently announced that they’d be releasing the film (that’s never even seen a DVD release!) as part of their ever-growing slate of overlooked 80s horror flicks being brought to Blu-ray.
Needless to say, I was at once apprehensive and overjoyed.
Death Valley became something of a staple on the pay cable stations in the early 1980s, and I remember watching this flick at least a dozen times during the period in which it ran. It was just one of those inherently re-watchable films that offered ample amounts of gore, a touch of nudity, and, perhaps most attractively to a kid on the cusp of his teenage years, a smart and resourceful child protagonist (Peter Billingsley of A Christmas Story fame) tasked with dodging a pair of killers in the dusty environs of Arizona.
I’ve started a few reviews waxing philosophical about how nostalgia can warp one’s memories of movies, especially those seen during a person’s formative period, where one really hasn’t quite learned to discern from good and bad, and is simply just happy to have cable television. There have been many films that my pre-adolescent-self had held in high regard that, to my horror upon revisiting as an adult, turned out to be complete and utter garbage. Every once-in-awhile, however, I’ll revisit a film not seen since childhood and not only thoroughly enjoy it, but realize that, if anything, I didn’t appreciate it enough as a kid.
Such is the case with Death Valley.
Billingsley stars as Billy Stanton, a toe-headed boy whose college professor dad, Paul (Edward Herrmann), has molded into a prototypically snobby city boy, arming him with fistfuls of knowledge, a love of art and culture, and a general disdain for anything outside of his Manhattan surroundings. When Billy’s mother, Sally (Catherine Hicks) – a transplanted Arizonian whose had enough of the city life – takes Billy back to her home state for a vacation with her “special friend” Mike (Paul Le Mat), Billy is expectedly unenthusiastic about the trip, and, despite Mike’s best efforts, completely unreceptive to both his mother’s new boyfriend and the desert he calls home.
Mike tries to win Billy over by bringing he and Sally to an abandoned gold mine where Billy stumbles upon a seemingly vacant RV. Inside, he finds a strange gold amulet on the floor of the camper, before Mike scolds him for trespassing and hurries him back to their vehicle. Later, when dining at a local greasy spoon, the group is tended to by Hal, a waiter (Stephen McHattie) wearing an amulet identical to the one Billy found. The waiter catches a glimpse of Billy’s ill-gotten treasure, but, aside from a quizzical look, makes nothing of it.
A short while later, en route to a nearby attraction, Billy, Mike, and Sally watch as the smoldering shell of the same RV they’d seen earlier in the day is being towed out of a ditch, its three occupants burned beyond recognition. Mike goes ahead to ask the sheriff (oatmeal-loving diabetes spokesman, Wilford Brimley, credited as A. Wilford Brimley, here) what happened. Billy, meanwhile, is overcome by guilt for stealing the necklace from the camper, and “turns himself in” to the Sheriff, handing over the piece of jewelry and telling him where he found it. He also tells the Sheriff about seeing the man at the restaurant wearing the very same necklace, but it’s apparent that the Sheriff is already well-aware who the owner of this medallion is.
While Billy and the others head off for a day at a ghost town, the Sheriff pays a visit to Hal’s place, where he lives with his brother – both of whom are prospectors like their departed father, despite the fact that no new gold has been found in the area in decades. The Sheriff tells Hal about the RV “accident”, and then produces the medallion, telling Hal about the young boy finding it in the vehicle earlier that day. A nervous Hal agrees to help the Sheriff track down his brother, but, as the two leave the house, the Sheriff is murdered by Hal’s brother, leaving Hal to deal with Billy, the only other witness that can place them at the scene of the crime.
Death Valley is a really fun and engrossing little thriller with excellent production values (Stephen H. Burum’s cinematography is divine), a great, truly unhinged performance by the always-awesome McHattie, and solid direction by Dick Richards. The story’s a simple one, and most everyone will see the film’s “twist” coming from the moment we meet Hal, but this is a movie that’s more about atmosphere and its surroundings. The desert’s always been a favorite locale of mine when it comes to horror/thrillers, as it’s at once wide open and terribly claustrophobic. It also lends the proceedings a sense of isolation that really heightens the tension. Richards amplifies this tension further by shooting low, forcing the audience to share young Billy’s perspective, and the result is an almost constant sense of dread and unease. It’s just a great little shocker that I found just as entertaining today as I did when I was a wee lad, but, now, armed with a better “trained” set of eyes, I was also able to appreciate the many technical aspects that make it such an effective film.
Scream Factory releases Death Valley in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that sports a phenomenal new 1.85:1 transfer culled from the original 35mm negative. The image is very crisp and clean, with vibrant colors and rich, velvety blacks. The film has an occasionally soft aesthete (Burum employs that “gauzy” look that was popular at the time in a few interior scenes), but the level of fine detail on display here is exceptional, while a subtle cinematic grain wraps the whole thing up in a beautifully filmic bow. I’m actually going to go out on a limb here and say that this may well be the best transfer Scream Factory has offered yet, which is saying a lot as their highly praised releases of Halloween II and III are widely considered to be two of the best looking horror releases of the past few years!
The two accompanying audio tracks – a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio offering, as well as a 2.0 DTS HD Master Audio track – both sound fantastic, but, purist that I am, I found myself enjoying the stereo mix a touch more as it just sounded “right”. There’s nothing wrong with the 5.1 track; it’s nicely mixed, and there’s nothing really artificial sounding about the separation, but I just found the sturdy old 2.0 mix to be more natural sounding.
Seeing as how this isn’t one of Scream Factory’s collector’s edition releases, Death Valley isn’t loaded to the rafters with special features, but it does have a very informative and enthusiastic commentary track by the affable Richards, as well as both a TV spot and theatrical trailer for the film, both of which offer one of the most unintentionally hilarious voiceovers I’ve ever heard. There’s also a trailer for Scream Factory’s other December release, The Island.
Death Valley is an overlooked gem that has finally gotten its due thanks to Scream Factory. The Blu-ray presentation stands amongst their best offerings, with a gorgeous transfer and a choice of two excellent audio tracks. While it lacks the usual smorgasbord of supplements we’ve grown accustomed to with the company’s collector’s edition releases, Scream Factory still manages to drum up a great commentary track, as well as a pair of vintage trailers. Very highly recommended!