Death Valley 1982
Directed by: Dick Richards
Starring: Paul Le Mat, Catherine Hicks, Peter Billingsley
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
There’s a line in this forgotten mid-budgeted slasher that really struck a chord with me. It reminded me that there are some couples I know that meet in their early teens and stay together for most of their lives. Other friends that I have jump from one relationship to the next and never really find a platonic bond with a partner. In a surprisingly philosophical piece of dialogue early on in the runtime, a father is asked by his child as to why he has separated from his mother. “We fell in love with a picture”. He replies rather awkwardly. “I’m not the man that your mother wants and she’s not the woman with whom I fell in love with”. ‘Fell in love with a picture’…
This is a fault in the wiring of mankind that occurs with unfortunate regularity. We are so brainwashed by the desperation to find Mr or Mrs Right that sometimes we don’t see the ‘wider plan’ and so we buy in to an image of a person that our imagination has construed. Then we get disappointed that things don’t work out the way that we envisioned. What a fine piece of insight from a member of a genre that’s not known for its intelligence or cultural acknowledgement.
There are other touching moments in Death Valley, which are brought about from a gamble taken by screenwriter Richard Rothstein. Almost all of the slasher movies released during the peak years had a central character that was either in their late teens or adulthood. Here we have a ‘Final Boy’ who is just that: a young boy. It’s a shot in the dark that hits the target and creates an authentic and enjoyable alternative.
A divorcee and her young son head off to Arizona to visit her boyfriend. Whilst exploring the desert, the young child becomes an unwitting witness in a murder case. When the killer is made aware of his identity, he begins to stalk the threesome, killing everyone in his way…
It would be fair to say that Rothstein has never been considered as a particularly emotional screenwriter and a list of credits that include Universal Soldier and Hard to Hold add weight to that consensus. On this basis, I would consider Death Valley to be the best of his work. It’s a film that offers various cinematic moods in one fast paced and compact time frame. It was released in 1982 on a generous budget (for the category it frequents), but got lost in the multitude of masked killers and disappeared quite rapidly. Despite being picked up by a large label, it received very little fanfare or marketing, which didn’t help and it has only recently been given a shot on DVD.
The ‘father and son’ opening conversation scene that I mentioned above builds an interesting sub-plot, which involves the mother’s new boyfriend who is played by Paul Le Mat. Le Mat is somewhat of an enigma for me, because he made his name in the pre Star Wars George Lucas hit, American Graffiti. He shared billing there with Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith and outshone the three of them with a performance full of charisma. Handsome and rugged with an intriguing screen presence, he seemed to be perfect leading man material, suited to the kind of roles that his co-star from Graffiti, Harrison Ford, would later excel in. His ship never rolled in however and eight years down the line, he was turning up in mid-range films such as this.
The guy that he portrays here is in love with the mother of our final boy and wants to be accepted with minimal fuss. The child however is ‘loyal’ to his father and isn’t open to the ‘uninspired’ attempts to win his trust. It’s staged superbly, because the viewer is unsure who is more deserving of sympathy. Whilst we can notice that the kid may be unnecessarily awkward in not accepting the efforts to build a friendship; said ‘efforts’ are delivered half-heatedly and with minimal patience from the adult. At times it feels like he is an unwanted addition on the holiday, which in a way makes neither character morally superior. I was totally engrossed in this relationship for the first twenty minutes or so and forgot that I was watching a horror film.
When the slasher stuff starts though, things hot up nicely. Three teens in a RV, including an amazingly hot chica in a boob tube, are slaughtered systematically with some neat camera work and splashings of blood. The killer puts in a couple more creepy appearances and chucks in a well timed jump scare to boot. He drives a creepy as hell 1958 Cadillac Series 62 Sedan with the legendary ‘Dagmar’ Bumpers and the moments where we see the car ‘stalking’ bring to mind John Carpenter’s Christine, a year before that movie was even released. There’s a few tense moments, like when the boy stumbles across a murder site early on and we get a cooler than cool chase sequence in an old Western town, where the intended victim thinks it’s just a game. There’s also a terrific score from Dana Kaproff that sounds like a cross between Manfredini and Zaza. Yes, it is that good.
The acting from the entire cast is top quality and real mention should go to the outstanding work from the eleven year old Peter Billingsley as the youngster and Stephen McHattie as the twisted killer. Even if director Dick Richards didn’t do anything exciting technically, he got the best out of his cast with the dramatics. The plot roles very neatly through to it’s conclusion and they even manage to chuck in a twist and a tad of humour of the darkest kind. This involves a girl with obvious, ahem, ‘weight problems’ getting slashed because she went for just that one treat too many. It’s worth noting that Valley is the closest we have to a slasher Western and the nut job even sports a ‘mask’ that is a Cowboy hat and a neckerchief! How can you not like that?
Some have written that the film suffers from a muddled story, but I really didn’t notice that at all. Instead, it chucks in all the clichés and still manages to be somewhat off-beat. Perhaps not scary or gory enough to be a lost classic, but it has enough suspense, intrigue and fluidity to guarantee a fun hour and a half’s entertainment.
Killer Guise: √√√