Death Valley (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kid tangles with psycho.

Before Peter Billingsley played Ralphie Parker he was Billy Stanton a 10 year-old-kid who gets shipped off to Death Valley with his mother (Catherine Hicks) and her new boyfriend (Paul LeMat) for a vacation. Once there he spots a sinister man (Stephan McHattie) driving around in a creepy old car. The man has just committed double homicide and fears Billy may have been a witness. Now he proceeds to silence the kid who proves to be surprisingly ingenious.

The screenplay was written by Richard Rothstein who later went on to write the script for Universal Soldier as well as producing the HBO anthology series The Hitchhiker. Apparently he came up with the concept for this story after vacationing in Death Valley and seeing a mysterious old car, the first car they had seen in miles, driven by an odd looking man. The story though is quite one-dimensional and offers little intrigue. It might’ve worked better had the killer’s identity and motivations been kept a mystery, or the viewer made to question whether Billy was just making the whole thing up.

Everything seems strangely sanitized particularly the killings which amounts to nothing more than a quick slash to the victim’s throats and it’s over. It was almost like they were trying to make a horror movie that was ‘kid-friendly’ or something that the ‘whole family could watch together’, which was a mistake. Having the protagonist as a kid instead of an adult doesn’t add any interesting perspective and the twist that comes at the end is not clever and something that I had actually predicted.

Hicks, in her film debut, is wasted and LeMat has about as much screen presence as your local garbage collector. Billingsley is cute, but he’s always put into a situation that he can figure his way out making the tension quite minimal.

The film was shot in Death Valley National Park, which allows for a stark ambience that doesn’t get taken advantage of enough. Director Dick Richards who burst onto the movie scene in the ‘70s with The Culpepper Cattle Company seems to have lost his way here. It could’ve been that after the financial failure of March or Die, which lost over 5 million at the box office, he was happy to get any film opportunity at all, but his heart was clearly not into this one and the result is a flatly told Hitchcock-like misfire .

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: January 22, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 24 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Dick Richards

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

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