A little boy from the big city is given a terrifying real-life experience in the Wild West when a serial killer hunts for him in 'Death Valley.' The mostly forgotten thriller is not exactly a western in the truest sense. Rather, it borrows classic elements from that genre and mixes them into familiar "slasher" territory, a subgenre at the peak of popularity when this flick initially hit theaters. It ultimately impresses by generating an effectively suspenseful tone that suddenly goes for broke in the third act. It's easy to see its shortcomings and the reasons for failing to capture an audience — mostly due to a predictable plot with very few surprises — but it's a serviceable horror thriller that strayed from the pack.
Still a year away from his most famous role as little Ralphie in 'A Christmas Story,' Peter Billingsley is the little boy, Billy, forced to run for his life. He's a natural in the part, lending an air of authenticity and apprehension to an unbelievable story. It's a bit of a surprise that he didn't go on to bigger and better things because even at this young age, Billingsley shows he can outperform the rest of the adult cast, which includes Wilford Brimley as the sheriff. Billy is an intelligent and resourceful kid, cleverly escaping his predator with ease. His curiosity, however, is also what lands him and his family in trouble after exploring a seemingly abandoned RV and stealing a frog pendant connecting a series of murders.
The reason little Billy is in Death Valley and walking around unsupervised is that his divorced mother (Catherine Hicks, who later played another similar role in 'Child's Play') takes him to vacation there while she reunites with old high school sweetheart Mike (Paul Le Mat). As one would expect, Billy is having difficulty warming up to mom's new beau and isn't particularly excited of his current situation — an emotional prologue shows the kid struggling to understand why his parents can't be together. But this is where the script by Richard Rothstein takes an interesting turn, grounding the action and scares within the drama of a divorced family, making 'Death Valley' a unique genre feature during the golden era of "slashers."
At times, the narrative can feel weighed down by the drama, showing several awkward conversations between the trio and Mike, being the good guy that he is, trying to his best to be accepted by Billy. Then again, it also adds a welcomed pace to a movie that could easily plunge into endless displays of graphic violence. Instead of rushing to the typical final reveal, which is really not much of a shocking twist, the story slowly unfolds in classic Hitchcockian fashion, gradually and methodically building the suspense and apprehension. Director Dick Richards, who is better known as producer to Sydney Pollack's 'Tootsie,' displays a great deal of poise and style behind the camera, creating anticipation and designing some terrifically fun edge-of-your-seat moments.
It doesn't take long for the filmmakers to show audiences who the killer is, a deliberate move on their part so that the focus remains on Billy and his family struggles. Stephen McHattie threatens their well-being and success, but he also strangely brings them closer together by pushing Mike into a hero-type role. It all culminates in a good-ole fashioned shootout, which is in accordance to the plot's western influences. It's a yet also predictable finish to a well-executed horror thriller aided by Dana Kaproff's chilling musical score. 'Death Valley' is largely forgotten today, but hopefully, it will find an appreciative audience on Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Death Valley' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD25 disc is housed inside the normal blue case with a second DVD-9 disc on the opposing panel. At startup, the disc goes to a generic main menu selection on the bottom of the screen with a static photo of the killer's vintage care and music playing in the background.
'Death Valley' roams the wide open spaces of Blu-ray with a very good AVC-encoded transfer. The desert is lush with bold secondary hues, filling the screen with lots of browns, beiges and yellows for a warm but dramatic effect. The 1.78:1 image also displays plenty of deep, vivid primaries throughout, with reds looking particularly bright and bloody. Flesh tones appear natural and appropriate to the climate. The picture comes with a well-balanced contrast and clean, crisp whites while black levels are rich with excellent shadow details. The fine lines around killer's house, the motel and each grain in the sand are sharply defined, and textures on the faces of actors and clothing are distinct. Except for a few soft spots due to the original photography and some visible specks of dirt that randomly pop up, this 1982 thriller looks great in high-def video.
As with other recent Scream Factory releases, fans are given a choice between a 5.1 surround track and a 2.0 mono option, both in the DTS-HD Master Audio codec. The first is a satisfying remix though it's mostly a front-heavy presentation with the occasional discrete effect spreading into the back speakers. It also offers an ample amount of bass to the action and music without seeming artificial or forced. However, I did detect a strange faint popping sound in the background, which after a short while became an annoyance.
In the end, I preferred the lossless mix of the film's original design. The soundstage was full of warmth and fidelity, creating a substantially broad soundfield. Dynamic range was sharply rendered and extensively detailed with a healthy, appropriate low-end. The chilling, suspenseful music of Dana Kaproff comes in with terrific clarity and a comprehensive feel. Dialogue is crisp and precise in the center, making for a very engaging and entertaining high-rez track.
Released during the golden era of slashers, 'Death Valley' stands out by mixing things up with a western theme at its core. The well-executed horror thriller also comes with a strong family drama that grounds the action and features an excellent performance by a very young Peter Billingsley. The Blu-ray arrives with a great picture quality and a terrific audio presentation. Supplements are the weakest area, but the overall package is a welcomed release for fans of obscure slashers. Worth a look.