Director: Dick Richards
Cast: Paul Le Mat, Catherine Hicks, Stephen McHattie
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Hey, whaddya know, I’m actually doing a bit of chronological work in Census Bloodbath. I’ve been skipping around a bit, but our humble project is currently still plowing its way through the early 80’s. When last we left our genre, it was in its glorious Golden Age, producing some of its most iconic works. That period continued, to some extent, into 1982. Certainly the sheer volume of films was continuing, although the market had been flooded and was already starting to drown out public interest.
However, the death rattle of the slasher was too faint to be noticed, which is how we got a film as relatively stately as Death Valley, a family drama road Western with a psycho killer attached. It’s a far cry from the crass dregs of the genre that would be cropping up soon, to the point that we can’t even Meet the Meat. We have actual characters to talk about!
I know it’s weird, but bear with me.
In Death Valley, 10-year-old Billy (Peter Billingsley a year before A Christmas Story) is dragged on an Old West road trip with his freshly divorced mother Sally (Catherine Hicks of Child’s Play) and her new boyfriend Mike (Paul Le Mat of Puppetmaster). On a pit stop at an old gold mine, Billy discovers an abandoned RV and steals a medallion he finds on the floor, not realizing it’s evidence of a triple murder that took place there just minutes before. Now the killer (Stephen McHattie) is after Billy, wanting to silence him after he tells the Sheriff (Wilford Brimley) about the medallion.
Put that down, you’ll shoot your eye out!
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this project, it’s that I’m a real sucker for roadside thrillers. To be fair, the likes of The Hitcher or Road Games are just damn good films, but you could stage Girls School Screamers on a cross-country outing and I would lap it up. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Southern California so highways are all I know, but there’s something quintessentially, darkly American about a thriller set on a dusty, lonely road. It’s the only identity we have.
But I digress. Death Valley blends two classic Americana genres (the road trip movie and the Western) with another, not so timeless one (the slasher). And it is a very very bad slasher, with a low body count and poorly rendered, monotonous kills. Most of the onscreen slayings are staged the exact same way, with a prop knife leaving a pale smear of ketchup on a victim’s neck. I know ten-year-olds with YouTube accounts who could come up with better special effects.
But here’s the kicker. In Death Valley, unusually, nearly everything else around the slasher elements does manage to work. From its intelligent but effective cinematography that captures the desert landscape and plants you firmly in the protagonist’s perspective to the production design that produced an eerie, ominous car that rivals the unbridled villainy of the truck in Duel, Death Valley’s non-genre aspects are pretty much working on all cylinders.
Christine be damned, this car really does cut quite a figure.
That’s not to say this is an unparalleled piece of cinema. Some truly clumsy foley work and abrupt, ugly insert shots see to that. And then the third act completely forgets about its characters in favor of genre clichés, as most family drama hroror movies tend to do, it reveals how poorly staged the thriller elements have been the whole time.
But! It’s not really a pain to spend time with these characters. Death Valley’s willingness to really grind your face into the awkwardness of being a kid facing a mom who’s newly on the market and a brand new boyfriend who must ingratiate himself with said kid is truly refreshing. Both sides of the coin are genuinely engaging (except for the mother herself, who’s a bit of a limp dishrag. Thanks, 80’s horror), especially coming from Peter Billingsley, who gives a shockingly nuanced and realistic performance in his onscreen debut.
It’s a mixed bag, to be sure, but it makes for a reasonably entertaining film. It’s too toothless to be a truly memorable horror movie, but as a drama featuring a serial killer, it’s completely passable. I enjoyed it, given my particular proclivities, but I can’t say I’d be too fast to recommend it to someone I cared about very much.
Killer: Hal and Stu (Stephen McHattie)
Final Girl: More like a final family – Mike (Paul Le Mat), Sally (Catherine hicks), and Billy (Peter Biloingsley)
Best Kill: Wilford Brimley gets a pickaxe to the chest in the only death that’s even mildly visually interesting.
Sign of the Times: Billy is obsessed with his new “electronic game,” which turns out to be a Simon Says toy.
Scariest Moment: Billy hides in a car which turns out to belong to the killer, who drives away with him in the back seat,
Weirdest Moment: Billy’s babysitter is an overweight girl who devours everything in the hotel room, loudly crinkling packaging and smacking her lips for like five minutes before getting killed on an ice cream run.
Champion Dialogue: “Let’s see if your gun’s as loud as your mouth.”
Body Count: 7
- Donny has his throat slit offscreen.
- RV Boy has his throat slit.
- RV Girl is killed offscreen.
- Sheriff Perry is pickaxed in the chest.
- Babysitter has her throat slit.
- Hal is shot to death.
- Stu is impaled on spikes.
TL;DR: Death Valley is a decent roadside Western, even if its qualities as a slasher are lacking.
Word Count: 952