Review by Patrick Cooper
Director Dick Richards only helmed seven movies during his career. Not a lot, but he managed to cover a lot of genre territory along the way. Wedged in between a war epic and a family melodrama is 1982’s obscure horror-thriller Death Valley. The film follows Billy, a young city boy on a reluctant trip to the west. His mom forces him to go so she can soften him up to her new boyfriend, who’s pretty much the opposite of Billy’s intellectual biological father. It’s more thriller than horror and Richards manages to infuse it with some nice western aesthetics. And now the folks at Scream Factory have dropped this obscure little film onto Blu-ray and DVD for the first time. Prepare to stare into the abyss of Peter Billingsley’s rosy cheeks in HD…
A pre-Christmas Story Billingsley stars as Billy. We first meet him during the film’s whimsical prologue as he roams around Manhattan with his dad (Edward Herrmann – The Lost Boys), doing academic shit like playing chess and going to book stores. This NYC montage is in sharp contrast to where we see Billy next: stepping out of an airport in Arizona, looking like they just put his dog to sleep. He has no interest in Arizona, or the desert, or his mom’s new boyfriend, Mike (Paul Le Mat – Puppetmaster). Mike doesn’t seem all that interested in Billy either. He’s a total dick to him behind his back, rolling his eyes whenever Billy opens his mouth looking really off-put by Billy’s intelligence.
While stopped in Death Valley, mom and Mike let Billy wander around the desert by himself. I’m sure Mike was hoping the kid would get lost and never be heard from again. But instead Billy comes across a motor home where a triple murder just occurred. This is where Death Valley really starts to pick up. The killer, Hal, starts stalking Billy’s family around the desert. We know who the killer is pretty early on because he’s wearing the same frog necklace MacGuffin Billy finds in the motor home.
It’s Stephen McHattie! That creepy guy who looks like Lance Henriksen! There are some pretty great set pieces between Billy and Hal. The best is in an old west museum where Hal has a bandana on so Billy thinks he’s part of the show. See, it’s one of those living museums where people dress up in period costume and talk to you so you feel super awkward. Billy calls him “Black Bart” – that’s two movies in a row Billingsley calls someone “Black Bart”! Pretty thought-provoking film criticism, I know.
Wilfred Brimley plays the sheriff and is as amazing as always. That guy has such incredible, stoic presence. Throw a cowboy hat and a badge on him and game over, pal. You can shove your diabetes jokes up you ass. Show some respect for Brimley’s greatness.
Then there’s the scene with the babysitter. Ho-lee shit. Billy’s family leaves him alone in a hotel room with this babysitter who looks like a bigger version of that fat blonde kid from Trick ‘r Treat who hose-vomits chocolate. And it’s a girl. As Billy watches television, she eyeballs a bunch of snacks that are sitting on the TV stand. There’s a Twinkie, a Mr. Goodbar, and some chips. This scene goes on forever. It’s baffling and hilarious. Richards makes us watch this girl in real-time drool over the snacks, ask if she can eat the snacks, then she eats the snacks, then she folds up the wrappers super loud, and uses them as a napkin. It goes on for like five minutes and miraculously it doesn’t impede the suspense building. If anything it makes you more on edge because you can’t wait for this girl to get killed! She even sticks her little sausage fingers in Billy’s ice cream! Ah!
The climactic twist is predictable but pulled off really well. The ending is pretty tense and the entire movie builds up to it nicely. I was hoping Billy’s real dad would show up and save the day though. He could’ve not only stopped Hal, but also smack Mike around for being a dick to his son. It’s fun to imagine the phone call the mom had to make to Billy’s dad, telling him all about how a serial killer almost murdered the kid. I bet Billy’s dad won the custody battle after this.
On Scream Factory’s Facebook page, people have expressed worry that the company is cranking these sets out too fast – that they won’t be able to keep up the quality of A/V and special features. I’ve got faith in them though. I’m sure resources for Death Valley were pretty slim, but they still managed to put together a set that’s worth your hard-earned money. And a lot of people, including myself, never even heard of this movie before Scream Factory announced it. So I say keep ‘em coming.
Scream Factory presents Death Valley in 1080p 1.78:1 widescreen. The transfer’s got a few specks and scratches but otherwise looks fantastic. The bright colors of the desert contrast crisply with the nighttime scenes. Like I mentioned earlier, Billingsley’s chubby rosy cheeks are hypnotizing. The 5.1 track sounds fine.
Audio commentary with director Dick Richards, moderated by Edwin Samuelson of AV Maniacs: Richards talks about the development of the film. He explains how he wanted to make one film in every genre, but he’s bummed he never made a musical. He considers Death Valley to be more of thriller than horror, and I’d have to agree. He’s says some pretty funny stuff about Billingsley – how he was a 40-yr-old trapped in a little kid’s body. He calls him “all business.” Samuelson tries to dig deeper and keep the conversation going, but Richards doesn’t seem to remember a lot (he’s pretty old now).
Trailer and TV spot
DVD copy for all you cavemen