"Kids in peril" horror and thrillers have always been the most fascinating to me. A precocious young person matching wits against a charismatic killer in something like "Night of the Hunter" or even a literal murderous creature of pure as in "Silver Bullet" or the first two "Child's Play" films. I find the best of these kinds of movies play on us in two ways: first, by gaining our sympathy for the weakest among us and second by playing on some of our own buried childhood fears about very real boogeymen stalking in the night.
One-time photographer turned filmmaker Dick Richards took a stab at this mini-genre with the 1982 road kill thriller "Death Valley" with varying degrees of success, represented here in a pristine (if not feature-rich) disc from "Scream Factory."
The kid and killer in question are "A Christmas Story" hero Peter Billingsley and the star of the excellent "Pontypool," the sharp-featured Stephen McHattie, playing a roadside murderer who targets a young boy on vacation who may have seen a little too much. While visiting his soon-to-be-divorced mom for a road trip with her new boyfriend (Catherine Hicks, Paul Le Mat), Billy (Billingsly) unwittingly stumbles upon a crime scene left by the homicidal pit stop diner waiter Hal (McHattie), joining the two in a game of cat and mouse across the desert.
It's a mix of domestic drama, black comedy, and brief flashes of gore (with a little bit of out-of-nowhere T&A) in the first act, featuring a cast of "hey, I know you"-types all wrapped up with a twist that is as strange as it is unnecessary.
Billingsly does the cute-smart kid thing here, not quite warming to his wife's cowboy beau Mike, while she carries on a chipper act hoping the two will just get along. Typically, in this kind of movie, the kid would end up playing the detective, trying to convince a doubting mom that there's a killer on their trail. But "Death Valley" sidesteps that step entirely, framing the whole story around Hal's pursuit of Billy--and the unfortunate victims that get between them in a lot of daytime horror punctuated by regular TV composer Dana Kaproff's aggressive score.
While not a high body count film, "Death Valley" nonetheless sports a few graphic (for the time, at least) kills, with Hal using several bladed weapons to cut through his victims. Speaking of our killer, as someone who isn't really interested in lengthy explanations about the motives of a film's killers, Hal nonetheless remains a cypher, the outwardly charming side of him never really jibing with the guy willing to cut some poor teen's throat. It's a testament to McHattie's easy creepiness that the character works as well as he does in the actor's hands.
Ultimately, "Death Valley" is a curiosity more interesting for its cast than anything actually on the screen.
Special features and presentation
For all that, Scream Factory did show this feature a lot of love in terms of its 1080p visuals, giving us sharp details and bright, healthy colors (maybe to the film's detriment--every time there's a spray of blood it looks like cheap paint). Released here as a DVD/Blu-ray combo, the hi-def disc includes a DTS HD mono track while the DVD includes Dolby Digital mono.
The release might be considered spare when stacked against other Scream Factory discs in terms of supplemental material: Richards provides a commentary track, and both the theatrical trailer and TV spot for "Death Valley" are included here (you can see the theatrical trailer below). Unlike many of the higher-profile Scream Factory discs, this one doesn't include specially-commissioned cover art, instead using the theatrical poster with stills from the feature in the interior.
"Death Valley" will be available as a Blu-ray/DVD combo on December 11th from Scream Factory.