Before A CHRISTMAS STORY, Peter Billingsley was evading a psychopathic murderer in the Arizona desert in DEATH VALLEY, a Universal pick-up making its DVD (and Blu-ray) debut courtesy of Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line.
When his parents decide to divorce, precocious New York kid Billy (Peter Billingsley, A CHRISTMAS STORY) reluctantly accompanies his mother Sally (Catherine Hicks, CHILD’S PLAY) on vacation back to her home state of Arizona where she has been seeing former high school sweetheart Mike (Paul Le Mat, PUPPET MASTER). Mike tries to ingratiate himself to Billy by taking him and Sally on a tour of Death Valley but he gets a frosty reception from the kid (who is more preoccupied by the rusted, bullet-ridden Cadillac – with a California license plate starting with the letters HEX – that shares the desert road with them). While off exploring an abandoned gold mine, Billy stumbles across a motor home that happens to be the latest crime scene of a knife-wielding maniac who periodically takes out a couple tourists and has remained uncaptured. Billy misses the corpses but pockets a golden frog pendant which he later notices being worn by a waiter (Stephen McHattie, PONTYPOOL) at a local diner. On the way back to the hotel, Billy and Mike recognize the same motor home now charred and being towed out of a ditch. Rather than worrying about the repercussions of stealing the pendent, Billy tells the sheriff (Wilford Brimley, THE THING) about the pendent, the waiter, and the Cadillac. The clues lead the sheriff to desert home of the Peterson brothers Stu and Hal who are just as gold-crazy as their late father, but one of the brothers is already stalking Billy and unsuspecting Sally and Mike through the desert.
DEATH VALLEY’s plot doesn’t really hold up in retrospect, but it’s an entertaining view the first time around with some gorgeous photography – courtesy of Stephen H. Burum (BODY DOUBLE) – a tense score by Dana Kaproff (WHEN A STRANGER CALLS), a couple vicious FRIDAY THE 13TH-esque throat slashings (which probably got past the MPAA because of the pinkish color of the blood), and McHattie doing his deranged best in an underwritten role (putting inflections on any bit of dialogue that seems like it could be subtly revealing). The script defies expectations by having Billy immediately confess to his theft when he thinks that it may help find a killer; however, the fact that everyone in town appears to know what he did and who the sheriff was planning to interrogate suggest that the killer’s attempts to silence Billy will be in vain. Even if the killer doesn’t know that other people know, it may deflate some of the suspense the first time around for attentive viewers; although the script is also admirable for not going to extremes of misdirection and allowing the audience to either forget or retain on their own hints about the relationship between the Peterson brothers. The ghost town setting is effectively used for a couple suspense scenes but the script doesn’t really hint at any compelling motive for the string of killings (other than a throwaway suggestion of “gold fever” and some rote references to an abusive childhood).
Despite having had a couple prior film and TV roles already, Billingsley gets an introductory credit; but he certainly earns that prominence as an alternately endearing and exasperating character. Le Mat is also likable as the boyfriend who is frustrated yet persistent in his attempts to get Billy to like him (even if he seems to not have given a lot of forethought about becoming a stepfather via his reconnection with his high school crush). Hicks – in a role reportedly meant for Cybil Shepherd – has little to do throughout the film with the exception of being briefly menaced during the climax. The relationships between Billy and the adult males in his life (father, potential stepfather, and even the killer) are all more substantial than the mother’s role (although perhaps the script and/or Billy take her supportive position for granted). This film also sports one of the few Brimley performances I’ve seen that don’t immediately call his diabetes commercials to mind. Edward Herrmann (THE LOST BOYS) appears in the New York prologue as Billy’s father and makes the most of his five minutes with a moving dramatic turn that will surprise viewers accustomed to seeing him in supporting roles in comedies. Writer Richard Rothstein had previously scripted HUMAN EXPERIMENTS and would follow up DEATH VALLEY with Wes Craven’s INVITATION TO HELL, over eighty episodes of the Canadian suspense anthology THE HITCHHIKER, and the made-for-TV PSYCHO sequel BATES MOTEL (which he also directed). Director Dick Richards had previously worked for producer Elliot Kastner on FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (one of two Raymond Chandler adaptations with Robert Mitchum), who would also produce his later films MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD, and HEAT. Kastner – whose genre credits also include NOMADS, ANGEL HEART, and THE BLOB remake – returned to the Arizona desert a few years later to produce Donald Cammel’s underrated psycho thriller WHITE OF THE EYE (1987).
Opening with a vintage MCA company Universal logo, Scream Factory’s 1.78:1 widescreen transfer seems only slightly more detailed on the single-layer Blu-ray than it does on the dual-layer DVD with more apparent grain on the former (but it’s not like there are any alternatives, and any subsequent releases will likely use the same Universal master). Although the back cover only mentions a mono audio track, the discs actually sport both the original mono track in 2.0 and a 5.1 upmix (the tracks are in DTS-MA on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital on the DVD), as well as optional English SDH subtitles. While the bonus features may seem slim going by the menu – a trailer (2:09) and TV spot (0:26) for the film, plus trailers for THE ISLAND and THEY LIVE – you’ll find an audio commentary with director Dick Richards (moderated by AV Maniacs’ Edwin Samuelson) in the audio set-up menu. Richards justifies the New York montage – cliché visiting the museums and bookstores, playing chess in the park, and the like to set up a “fish out of water” notion for the protagonist’s visit to the desert. He describes the very professional Billingsley as “a young kid with a forty-year-old brain.” Richards also discusses the though behind selecting the killer’s car (the aspects of it that would make it seem alien and threatening to the child protagonist) and that the film’s resemblance to the slasher genre as coincidental (citing PSYCHO as his primary influence, although there are perhaps a lot of slasher film directors that would also cite the aforementioned seminal film). (Eric Cotenas)
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