Death Valley revolves around Billy (Peter Billingsley), a young boy whose mother (Catherine Hicks) and father (Edward Herrman) have just recently divorced, leaving Billy stuck with his mother and her new boyfriend Mike (Paul Le Mat) as they travel around the Nevada desert, unaware that there's a killer on the loose slashing the throats of oddly shaped teens just as their having their first experiences with nudity and, from the looks of them, breathing with their noses.
Billy, between being an uppity city boy with a professor for a father and his sadness over his parent's separation, is nearly insufferable with his "know everything" attitude and hate of all things made of dirt or named Mike. The trio makes a pit stop at an abandoned gold mine and one can sense the relief on Mike's face as Billy runs off on his own. It is without question that Mike, and even Billy's mom at this point, is hoping Billy's feet find every rattlesnake nest that has ever existed.
Instead, young Billy finds and breaks into a seemingly abandoned trailer where he finds a bizarre gold chain haphazardly lying on the floor. Mike, feeling bad about all that snake bite wishin', somehow finds the trailer and snatches Billy out before either notice all the teenage blood seeping out from under the nearby closed door.
What follows is a somewhat typical thriller, although it's handled in a rather finely tuned manner. It's shot incredibly well with some top notch cinematography work. Coupled with the pacing and atmosphere, these all do a great job at building actual tension and suspense which helps set it apart from the over-loaded, always growing herd of "mystery killer" films. The desert setting is also a wonderful backdrop for the film and lends many scenes an overall desolate feel and really helps build the terror in many of the scenes that Billy finds his self in.
Along with the cinematography and setting, the film's other strong note is the cast. Billingsley does impressive work as Billy, as he would continue to do a year later as Ralphie in the much beloved film A Christmas Story. He and Herrman have an incredibly touching moment in the beginning of the movie that I wasn't expecting from such a film and, even a few days after watching, continues to resonate with me. Wilfred Brimley shows up and turns in a Brimley-esque performance as "Sheriff" and character actor Stephen McHattie turns in a delightful, almost over the top performance as Hal, a local waiter who might know more about what's going on than he lets on.
For a film that has never even had a DVD release, I was prepared for this High Definition release of Death Valley to be less than stellar quality. Such is not the case as this transfer, a MPEG 4 1080p AVC encode, is quite remarkable looking. Colors are strong and never take on a warm, unnatural quality that many films set in a desert tend to. Fine detail is on display, from clothing textures to hair and facial features. Blacks are also deep and natural and help the night time scenes have that extra bit of atmosphere. Some of the murder scenes do lean a bit to the hokey end of things, what with the picture being so clean, but they were most likely hokey in the first place. This isn't a "demo" transfer by any means, but having gone into it expecting the materials to be rough, it was quite the nice surprise.
The audio end of things is equally impressive. The disc features two audio options; a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track as well as a 2.0 option. The 2.0 track is probably the more accurate to the film's original soundscape, but the 5.1 track really takes advantage of all of the available sounds and, in my opinion, suits the film best. Dialogue is centered and clear throughout the film. There's not a lot for the rears and mids to do throughout the entire film, but ambient noise and moments of soundtrack make their presence known and add yet another dimension to the film.
Beyond the Feature
SCREAM Factory has, over their first couple of releases, set a standard for special features for horror/cult film releases. One had to expect, though, that with the company releasing some films that have never even had a proper DVD release, that some films just wouldn't have the materials available.
Death Valley does come to Blu-ray with only one real special feature, an Audio Commentary with Director Dick Richards, but considering this a film that hasn't had a proper home release since the VHS era, I'm excited SCREAM was able to add this to the release. It's a run of the mill commentary, but does give some good incite to fans of the film, new and old alike. SCREAM Factory has also included trailers for Death Valley, as well as for fellow SCREAM releases The Island and They Live.
The Blu-ray release also includes a DVD version of the film.
All in all, Death Valley is much better than it has any right being. This was my first experience with the film and, 20 years after its original release, it holds up fairly well. Much of that is thanks to the superb work by the cast and Dick Richard's direction. With a transfer that is a million times better than it should be, an impressive audio offering and an unexpected audio commentary from Richard's himself, Death Valley is a must have addition to any horror or cult film fan's collection and is yet another gem in SCREAM Factory's continually growing stable of High Definition necessities. Highly Recommended!
- Matt Hardeman
Shop for Death Valley on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (December 11, 2012 release date).
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