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Release Date(s)1982 (December 11, 2012)
Studio(s)Universal (Shout!/Scream Factory)
Death Valley is most likely a film that you’ve never heard of, and it’s definitely not one that you’re ever likely to bring up when talking about the thriller and horror genres. It may not appeal to most horror movie fans simply for the presence of Ralphie from A Christmas Story as being the intended victim (without the narration). It’s also not one of the most well-executed thrillers you’re ever likely to see. It seems more like a TV horror movie that was somehow released as a big screen film. At least that’s how it comes off to me. If you scissor out the brief nudity and a couple of the bloodier scenes then you’d be left with the equivalent of something like The Demon Murder Case.
That’s not to say the entire film is a waste. The cast of Death Valley is probably the most interesting thing about it. Sure there’s Peter Billingsley, but there’s also Catherine Hicks, Paul Le Mat, Wilford Brimley, Edward Herrmann and Stephen McHattie. A rather odd line-up for a thriller, if you ask me. The movie is also relatively straightforward in its approach. It’s a bit of a mystery as to exactly what the hell is going on and why people are meeting their demise. There are a few red herrings thrown our way, such as everyone in the little town wearing gold necklaces of different animals. Ultimately, none of these things really add up to anything and have little to do with the plot once you find out what’s really going on. In other words, it’s more or less like throwing darts at a dartboard.
I do have to say though that both the build-up and the suspense are pretty good, at least better than average. Putting a little kid in jeopardy is probably the best thing you could have done with it, and until all is revealed, it’s all pretty decent thriller fodder. You’ll be guessing at what’s really up in Death Valley long before the anti-climactic conclusion comes your way. The performances aren’t terrible, but there are no standouts either. They’re serviceable enough anyway. The biggest complaint that I have about the movie are some of character’s actions, which are pretty clichéd: the child hiding from the villain instead of running, or even the useless female who can’t do anything but whine and cry when someone is attacking, even her own child! Things like this just make you want to tear your hair out. The movie also uses a lot of master shots with very little coverage, so even during tense moments the camera never cuts away. It feels amateurish, but not to the degree of declaring the movie incompetent. Overall, it’s no masterpiece, but it’s got a decent enough amount of scenes going for it to make it an ok horror movie, and at best, a slightly better than average thriller.
As far as the video presentation goes, the folks over at Scream Factory seem to have dug up a very clean print of Death Valley for this Blu-ray release, and it doesn’t disappoint. Image detail is abundant and the grain level is minimal. It’s a very bleak-looking film with a lot of low-key colors to it, mostly tans and browns, while blacks are nice and inky. They pop quite well and everything on display has a nice richness to it. Even skin tones look very good. Contrast has been cranked to get the most out of the images but not profusely (just check out the theatrical trailer for comparison). Overall, everything appears crisp and fresh without heavy-handed digital tampering, leaving little to complain about. You have two options for the film’s soundtrack: 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD tracks. Both tracks definitely have a richness to them, while the 5.1 track sounds much cleaner and spaced out. The music and the sound effects benefit the most from it, but the dialogue is perfectly clear and audible. There aren’t many moments to sweep from speaker to speaker, but it should leave little to be desired. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
As far as the extras go, you have an audio commentary with director Dick Richards, a TV spot and a theatrical trailer for the film, as well as trailers for The Island and They Live. I’m actually surprised to see an audio commentary track on this disc, but it’s a welcome addition. At least it’s some kind of glimpse into the making of the movie rather than none at all. The DVD that’s been included is identical to the Blu-ray, but features 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks for the main feature instead. So the extras aren’t beefy, but the commentary should be plenty. The movie is definitely a flawed one, but it’s still got some pretty good stuff in it worth comment. And for a thriller, it’s not an altogether terrible one. It’s most certainly rough around the edges, but you can find some enjoyment in it if you have the patience for it.
- Tim Salmons