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A divorced mother, her young son and her new boyfriend set out on a road trip through Death Valley and run afoul of a local serial killer.
For more about Death Valley and the Death Valley Blu-ray release, see Death Valley Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on December 12, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Catherine Hicks, Paul Le Mat, Wilford Brimley, Stephen McHattie, Edward Herrmann
Director: Dick Richards
» See full cast & crew
Death Valley Blu-ray Review
Maybe the big city is safer after all.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, December 12, 2012
Actor Peter Billingsley sure seemed comfortable around guns at a young age. In Death Valley, he parades through the film with his trusty paper cap six-shooter on his hip, playfully blasting real and make-believe villains and playing along with the Western on television, giving him a sense of security and a crude understanding of real firearms operations which might just come in handy when Mr. Bad Guy comes-a-calling. A year later he would star in A Christmas Story, the adorable classic in which he yearns to get his hands on a Red Ryder BB gun, warnings of shooting his eye out be damned. To be sure, Billingsley and guns go together like Ovaltine and secret decoder pins or, more appropriate to a review of Death Valley, campers and murder. Director Dick Richards' (Farewell, My Lovely) 1982 Western-inspired Thriller pits a pint-sized hero against a villain with a score to settle and a few brutal murders to sweep under the rug. It's a solid all-around picture, one that stands out in large part because of the child-in-danger storyline combined with its beautifully straightforward approach to storytelling.
Young Billy (Billingsley) is forcibly removed from the big city life he's always known when he and his mother Sally (Catherine Hicks) relocate to her old home state of Arizona where her old college boyfriend Mike (Paul Le Mat) still lives. Sally and Mike are happy but Billy's not so sure of his new situation. He dearly loves his father but slowly warms up to Mike after he outfits Billy in new Western clothes and buys him a toy gun. When the family stops to appreciate Arizona's natural beauty, Billy wanders off and finds a recreational vehicle. He ventures inside to discover freshly chopped vegetables and a strange looking charm lying on the floor which he pockets for himself. Little does he know that feet away are the bodies of its three occupants. When Billy, Mike, and Sally later see that same RV in a state of ruin and surrounded by onlookers and the authorities, Mike stops to share their earlier encounter with it while Billy hands over the charm to local law enforcement (Wilford Brimley). Little do they know that their good samaritan deeds will be punished when the killer discovers that Billy knows more than he would like and sets out to clean up the last bit of evidence from his ghastly triple homicide.
Death Valley opens with a heartwarming goodbye between father (Actor Edward Herrmann) and son Billy that critically sets the stage for the idea that Billy doesn't want to go to Arizona and that he's naturally suspicious of his mother's choices, particularly in her choice of Mike over the father he knows and loves. As the film progresses, Billy begins to take the adventure in stride, slowly coming to accept his new realities and adapting as children are apt to do, even in situations that would tear an adult to his or her very essence. Billy's slow progression from rejection to acceptance is critical in two ways. First, as he lowers his guard and embraces the sort of Wild West sense of adventure Mike promotes with the clothes and the gun, he lowers his guard and fails to recognize danger, even to the point that he doesn't realize when a real gun is fired in his direction. Second, he comes to believe in himself, that he can handle the bad guys just like the heroes he sees acting out Old West shootouts both in person and on television, or at least he does in a very childlike but effective sense. Along with his slow-building trust with Mike, the three of them just might stand a chance to survive a terrible climax in which all the pieces are necessarily forced together in a moment that will determine whether the newly formed family can escape the killer's grasp in one piece and as a single unit.
Beyond a few shades of Duel in an early desert automobile scene, Death Valley finds a fairly original and pleasantly simple plot about a young boy targeted for murder in what is the ultimate example of "wrong place, wrong time." Indeed, this isn't so much a Horror movie as it is a Thriller or, maybe, a hybrid Chase/Terror picture that makes its intentions very clear and still manages a decent surprise at the end. The film finds a naturally effective rhythm, eschewing the classic dark and spooky Horror-like motif of the killer-prey style of film and instead embraces a bright and wide-open Western-inspired affair awash in sun-drenched yellows and tans that give a false sense of security, particularly in the early and middle portions of the film. It effectively uses sharp musical cues as well, but its success stems almost entirely from a very convincing performance by a pre-Christmas Story Peter Billingsley who manages to act like a real kid with real emotions and desires and reactions without feeling like it's an act. Billingsley seems very much at home in front of the camera, and he delivers a fully satisfying performance that elevates the movie from bland time waster to worthwhile genre outing.
Death Valley Blu-ray, Video Quality
Death Valley arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory's Scream Factory label with an imperfect but highly effective and film-like high definition transfer. The image retains a rather moderate grain structure but also features a fair bit of noise, notably in darker corners of the image. Generally, the transfer yields pleasing details; faces, clothes, and the rough Western terrain all come together very well to create a convincing, cinematic appearance. Colors appear accurate along the film's dusty, sun-baked Arizona exteriors. The picture also handles the warm wooden interiors of various Old West locales and more bland modern-day settings both with equal proficiency. Black levels are never very far off, though flesh tones sometimes drift towards a slightly reddish shade. The image is a little flat and a hair soft in places. Additionally, very minor wear and tear is evident at times, but not approaching any detrimental state. All told, and despite a few minor drawbacks, this is very sturdy and enjoyable catalogue image from Scream Factory.
Death Valley Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Death Valley features a rather high quality DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack. While it won't be mistaken for a rip-roaring new release sound presentation, Scream Factory's audio presentation doesn't leave much to be desired for an aging, halfway obscure catalogue release. Music plays mostly around the front-center to begin, and big city sound effects don't enjoy precision balance, notably during the scene in which Billy and his father say their goodbyes. As the action shifts to Arizona, the track seems to gain a little steam. Some of the sharper musical cues during high energy chase scenes prove largely effective if not a bit scratchy and unkempt at the very top. Gunshots and other action-oriented effects enjoy a fair presence, playing with suitable energy and sonic accuracy. The surrounds don't chime in extensively and the Arizona ambience is never fully realized, but the track does well to get the basics across with little effort. Rounded into form by largely accurate dialogue, Death Valley's lossless soundtrack pleases, generally, throughout.
Death Valley Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Death Valley contains a commentary, a TV spot, and a few trailers. Shout! Factory's set also includes a DVD copy of the film.
Death Valley Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Death Valley might look like an unremarkable little film from the outside, and in many ways that is exactly what it is, but there's also a very admirable structure and performance that both elevate it above the status of "throwaway time killer." The movie is beautifully straightforward in style and approach, made all the better by an equally straightforward and attractive performance from young Peter Billingsley. Death Valley moves at just the right pace, plays at just the right runtime, and delivers on just the right amount of danger and suspense. It's not the end-all, be-all, but this is a surprisingly solid little outing that's well worth a watch. Shout! Factory's Blu-ray release of Death Valley features strong video and audio as well as an audio commentary track. Recommended.
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Death Valley Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Shout! Factory December 11th Blu-ray Releases Detailed - October 2, 2012
Shout! Factory will be releasing Death Valley and The Island on Blu-ray later this year. Each cult horror films will be brought to stores in a BD/DVD Combo pack and will make its debut on Blu-ray December 11th.
• The Island and Death Valley Coming Up - July 26, 2012
Independent distributors Shout Factory have revealed that they will release combo pack editions of Michael Ritchie's The Island (1980), starring Michael Caine, David Warner and Angela Punch McGregor, and Dick Richards' Death Valley (1982), starring Paul Le Mat, ...
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