Not even a scream escapes Judge Erich Asperschlager.
"Papa! I'm dancin' on the roof and there ain't nothing you can do about it."
Shout! Factory understands that horror fans are as enthusiastic as they are particular about the movies they love, which is why they launched the "Scream Factory" line of niche horror titles. Not every movie released under the "Scream Factory" name is a masterpiece, but all of them have been treated that way, with great hi-def transfers, bonus features, and cover art. Although Scream Factory includes big name movies like Halloween II and They Live, they mostly focus on smaller flicks. These are the movies that prove Shout! knows what they are doing. Movies like 1982 thriller Death Valley, making its hi-def home video debut as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.
Facts of the Case
Following his parents' divorce, young Billy (Peter Billingsley, Iron Man) goes on vacation out West with his mother (Catherine Hicks, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) and her new boyfriend (Paul Le Mat, American Graffiti). When they stop to stretch their legs, Billy wanders into a seemingly abandoned RV parked off the road, where he finds a frog pendant on the floor. Little does he know that the pendant belongs to a serial killer (Stephen McHattie, Watchmen) who murdered the RV's occupants and who now stalks Billy, looking to retrieve his property and silence the witness.
Although Death Valley is partly inspired by slasher movies, it is more thriller than horror flick. Billy is doomed not by the kind of amoral behavior popular in Haddonfield and Crystal Lake, but by his own curiosity. He takes the wrong thing from the wrong place at the wrong time. The film's scares come less from the actual kills—which are few and far between, with minimal amounts of tempera-red blood—than the dread of knowing the danger that's following Billy. What we learn about the killer happens mostly during the subplot of a local sheriff, played by Wilford Brimley, investigating the murders. Otherwise, the killer's presence is represented by a rusty yellow Cadillac that shows up wherever Billy is. For reasons that are revealed in the film's fairly obvious twist ending, the murderer's identity is hidden in shadows, the way shots are framed, and—in one of the film's best sequences—by a hat and bandana at a frontier town tourist trap, where a cap-gun toting Billy mistakes the killer for one of the actors.
Death Valley works best when that tension exists. The death scenes are less interesting. We first glimpse the killer when he murders a trio of teens in an RV. The scene is out of a lesser slasher movie—with horny kids, bare breasts, and POV shot that obscures the killer, along with pretty much everything else in the scene. The grand finale is no better. Except for a taut sequence with Billy looking for a hiding spot among cars in a parking lot, the ending is loud and dumb, with characters acting in ways that make little sense, ending with a twist that would fall apart if any characters did the first thing anyone in that situation would think to do. (Sorry that's so vague. The ending may not be great, but I won't spoil it here.)
The best thing about Death Valley isn't the slasher stuff, but the way it shows the fallout of divorce. From the tear-filled opening sequence when Billy says goodbye to his father (Edward Herrmann, The Lost Boys) to the frank discussions he has later with his mom and her boyfriend, the film isn't afraid of complex emotions. Lots of movies that use divorce as a plot device avoid dealing with the consequences by making the kids angry, driving a wedge between them and their parents. This forced conflict might make for nifty third-act reconciliation, but it's not honest. It's lazy. Death Valley has its lazy moments—especially near the end—but the interaction between the main three characters is well-observed.
Another reason those character moments work well is that Death Valley has a talented cast. Along with Edward Herrmann, who does a lot with only one scene, the film stars recognizable faces like Hicks, McHattie, Le Mat, and Brimley. The film also marks the feature film debut of Peter Billingsley, who would hit it big a year later as Ralphie in A Christmas Story. He appears in most of the scenes, and even if he doesn't have a ton to say it works because Billingsley feels like a real kid. We are meant to experience the story through his eyes. Richards shoots much of the film low, putting us on a child's level, where things are even scarier. It says a lot for Billingsley that Death Valley takes a dip whenever it steps away from Billy's story.
Shout! Factory once again works their magic on this largely forgotten thriller with an impressive 1.78:1 1080p transfer. The light layer of film grain is as warm as the dusty, rusty, bloody landscape. Although the image is soft in a few places, most of the film is nice and sharp. It matches, if not exceeds, a good number of recent big-name transfers. As for audio, the case mistakenly says the film comes with a mono DTS-HD Master Audio mix only, but it actually comes in both 5.1 surround and 2.0 Stereo. The surround mix may not take full advantage of the rear speakers, but dialogue is clear (if sometimes tinny) and Dana Kaproff's score hits with power.
Death Valley's main bonus feature besides a DVD copy of the film is an audio commentary with director Dick Richards and Edwin Samuelson (of AV Maniacs and The Cinefiles). It's a boisterous, rambling track that spends a lot of time on the making of the film and the ways Richards shot around Billingsley to avoid him seeing anything truly horrific on set. About midway through the film, Samuelson asks Richards about his career, which sends them off on a tangent that's as fascinating as it is frustrating. Scenes pass by without mention of what's happening on-screen, finally getting back on track just in time for the movie to end. The set also comes with 25 second TV spot for the film, and a two-minute trailer that spoils almost everything, while pushing hard with an aggressive narrator and multiple taglines, including "It's Psycho Season in Death Valley" and "Death Valley…quite fashionable…as a last resort."
Death Valley is an unassuming thriller that flubs some of the scares while finding surprising humanity in the smaller moments. The slasher angle pushed by Universal's marketing isn't as compelling as the story of a boy coming to terms with the end of his parents' marriage in a foreign, dangerous landscape. If the filmmakers had focused more on that metaphor and less on pedestrian kills and unsatisfying twists, perhaps Death Valley would have gotten a proper home video release before now. Whatever its shortcomings, Shout! Factory has done right by the film in hi-def—with an impressive transfer and an audio commentary that is anything but boring.
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