Any movie beginning with a poignant scene of a divorced father bidding farewell to his son, who is about to go on a trip with the estranged mother, along with some cute classical music and tears and hugs no less, could be signing its own death sentence. It would be perhaps dismissed as cheap and gratuitous. It’s even worse if we’re talking about a horror movie because then one could be inclined to think that the writers are simply trying to bring in fake emotions in a lame attempt to make you care about whatever is going to happen to their bland characters. After all, how many horror movies do you remember that truly care about character development? It could have gone all wrong but it didn’t, because it worked, and it was an amazing way to set the tone of this superb and unjustly forgotten horror movie of the early 80’s. Death Valley is simply put an exceedingly good yet typical slasher that practically gets everything right. Problem is, no one knows it.
After that successful first scene, the movie continues in a somewhat pedestrian way, however. The son who is called Billy (that would be Peter Billingsley aka “Ralphie” from A Christmas Story) reluctantly has to abandon his father for a while, with whom he seems to enjoy a great relationship. On the other hand, the mother (Catherine Hicks of Child’s Play fame) happens to be dating a guy who invites the two of them to a short vacations in his home. By the way, this guy (Mike) is very well played by Paul LeMat, who has quite a nice movie record. So, mother and son embark on a trip to Mike’s home which is in (wait for it) DEATH VALLEY … imagine my surprise! When they arrive there though, things get complicated between the three. Mike is cool but can be a very annoying fellow and expectedly doesn’t get along with Billy. In turn, the kid will constantly try to make him look like a moron and attempt to disrupt any moments of affection between the couple, even though Mike does really a good effort, and all this while the mother tries to handle the difficult situation. I’m sure this sounds probably boring but, pedestrian or not, we’re taken through these situations with great characterizations and an amazing backdrop: the barren, foreboding desert of Arizona. With barely a few minutes into the movie, we’re instantly sucked into the world of this family and care deeply about them, which is quite a rarity in the horror genre, much less in a slasher movie. Other than a brief encounter with a spooky old Plymouth while driving through the route (at least I think it was a Plymouth because they removed the logo), not much seems to happen for a while. However, just when you think that it couldn’t get any more tame, the first murder happens and the fun begins.
The actual situation though occurs when Billy stumbles upon the seemingly empty trailer where the murder occurred and starts to sniff around. He opens door after door, finding nothing but a broken medallion, yet the disturbing stillness of the trailer and eerie musical cue tell us that danger is just around the corner. Just as Billy is about to open the final door and potentially reveal the bodies, Mike takes him away and we’re allowed to sigh in relief. However, as you may have guessed, the murderer does notice the intrusion even though they never get to see each other. Still no problems so far, right? Not quite because a while later the family goes to a nearby restaurant and the waiter turns out to have the very same medallion that Billy found in the trailer hanging from his neck. The amazing exchange of looks between this suspicious waiter and Billy during the sequence are enough reason to convince us that things are pretty much going downhill from now on. What follows next is an excellent plot with a thrilling cat and mouse chase and the hunted outwitting the hunter. In fact, Billy is seriously one of the smartest kids ever shown on screen (Macaulay Culkin was just a lucky spoiled brat in comparison).
Death Valley works great on many levels but above all because of some darned good acting. You really get into Billy and his perils, moreover the despair of his family. The entire situation is very convincing and you never get to experience the usual “don’t do that” and “I knew that was going to happen.” Also worth mentioning is the cunning villain (Stephen McHattie, the waiter) who is quite a sight to behold. He is kind to provide us with a few funny remarks and expressions, but when he gets serious, the guy feels genuinely psychotic. Don’t worry, even though the culprit is somewhat revealed early during the movie, there is still plenty of room left for mysteries and twists. The ending can be quite unexpected, to say the least. Great acting isn’t enough by itself, of course, but fortunately it’s supported by inspired direction and excellent writing.
Let me give you an example of the remarkable writing in this movie. During the aforementioned first poignant scene, the father tries explaining to Billy why him and his mother aren’t together anymore and throws the following line: “Well you see, it’s like plants. There is a time and a season for things to grow and bloom, and then they fade and die away. Your mother and I have been through a lot of seasons together.” Then he goes: “I am not the man that she wanted me to be and she’s not the woman I fell in love with. We both fell in love with a picture in our heads, not with each other.” To what Billy innocently inquiries: “Am I just a picture in your head?”. That is damn good dialogue because the father’s lines were heartfelt without feeling trite and Billy’s response was exactly what a real kid could have said. The obvious side effect is that we immediately sympathize with Billy and we just want him to be fine. Remember: we’re talking about a slasher movie here. Unfortunately, the writer (Richard Rothstein) didn’t work on much movies and the few ones aren’t that noteworthy. Other than Bates Motel, which he also directed, and a collaboration in Universal Soldier [snores] there’s not much else to say about him.
Overall, my memories of Death Valley were always very positive and it was sort of a relief to find that the movie held up really well after all these years. It was also refreshing to see a horror movie that for once is more concerned with mood and character development rather than gore and sex (not that I have a problem with either anyway). Many sequences are terrific and memorable: Billy being stalked by the killer in a Westworld-like fun park, a poor babysitter tempted with candies towards an unfortunate demise, a stellar escape from a bathroom and then some. Particularly creepy is also the whole ending sequence although it could have been much better if handled with more care; by this point some of the characters feel tired and the direction has been a bit neglected, which results in a much less effective ending than it should have been. I suspect the production was simply running out of budget at that point. With this small criticism aside, there’s nothing else to complain about though. For the life of me, I can’t understand why Death Valley has been relegated to nearly absolute obscurity. Worse things have been released on DVD (heck, even Bluray by now) and the potential appeal of this movie is enormous. Can you imagine the selling bullet of “long-lost slasher-in-desert flick recovered from the 80’s!” and actually turning out being good? Whoever has the rights, please wake up. Still, if I managed to grab your attention, I believe that a copy in VHS shouldn’t be that hard to find and the effort is certainly worth it, if only for its unique setting and lasting characters.