Death Valley is usually lumped in with the slasher movie boom of the early 1980’s. However, despite a few slash-and-kill moments and a brief flash of nudity, it isn’t a true slasher film. In fact, you could say Death Valley exists in its own phantom realm that is not quite slasher movie and not quite traditional thriller. It has gotten short shrift over the years for this “neither fish nor fowl” sensibility but it’s actually a bit better than it gets credit for – and along the way, it offers an object lesson in how good craftsmanship can elevate the simplest of stories.
The premise is the kind of thing that might have amused Hitchcock: Billy (Peter Billingsley) is a New York kid who is trying to cope with the divorce of his parents. His mother Sally (Catherine Hicks) wants a fresh start, so she takes Billy on a vacation to her Arizona hoemtown so she can reconnect with an old flame, Mike (Paul LeMat). Billy isn’t too pleased about any of this but he resigns himself to playing along.
However, things get much more exciting for Billy in a less-than-desirable way when he stumbles onto the site of a murder perpetrated by a secret psycho killer. Said psycho is a local named Hal (Stephen McHattie) and he quickly puts two and two together when little Billy gives the Sheriff (Wilford Brimley) a piece of evidence he lifted from the scene of the crime. He begins to stalk Billy, thus setting the scene for a deadly variation on the old family vacation.
Death Valley is often tough to get a handle on, mainly because it’s such a defiantly odd blend of seemingly incongruous genres. Despite two truly slasher-riffic killer scenes, one involving a topless woman being menaced with a knife, and a suitably tense chase/slash/shoot finale, the film doesn’t have its heart in being a rollercoaster of shocks. In fact, it devotes an equal amount of its running time to pure character drama between Billy, him mom and the new boyfriend (there’s even an intro in New York with Billy and his dad, played nicely by Edward Herrmann, that feels like a scene from Kramer Vs. Kramer).
The film gives the suspense and family drama angles with equal weight for most of the running time, shifting back and forth between the two and only truly committing to thrills in the final half hour. As a result, Death Valley has a kind of off-kilter feel to it, almost as if were a shotgun marriage between a slasher flick and an afterschool special. If you’re looking for a pure-blood horror outing, the emphasis on family drama built around a kid will leave you scratching your head.
However, if you can roll with the film’s bobbing and weaving between genres, Death Valley is actually quite watchable. Richard Rothstein’s script has a likeably quirky sensibility, with the villain in particular written in an interesting and unorthodox way. It also deploys a simple but effective twist near the end. Despite the odd blending of genres, the narrative is constructed in a clean, straightforward manner that keeps the scale small and the characters front and center. As a result, it often feels like an upscale version of a 1970’s or early 1980’s t.v. movie, which is interesting because Rothstein would go on to create The Hitchhiker for HBO.
Director Dick Richards is known for doing character-driven material so he handles the dramatic angle quite well. He doesn’t go in for big shock devices during the suspense moments but he handles them in a clean, brisk style that works. He’s aided considerably by excellent photography from Stephen Burum, an excellent cinematographer who would go on to shoot several Brian DePalma films after this. Burum makes excellent use of Arizona’s desert vistas, making the sunny and arid topography look inviting and a little creepy all at once.
Most importantly, Richards directs his cast well, getting naturalistic performances to keep the story grounded. He has a fantastic cast here, definitely the film’s best asset. Billingsley, best known for A Christmas Story, is an unusually convincing kid actor. He hits all the right emotional marks without ever lapsing into “showbiz kid” phoniness. Hicks handles her mom archetype in an appropriately earnest style and LeMat shows subtle comic timing in how he deals with Billingsley. McHattie is fantastic as the film’s psycho, playing the character in a left-of-center, often sarcastic manner that is much more effective that the usual raving loon. Finally, pros like Brimley and Herrmann add ace support, sealing the consistent professionalism of the acting here.
In short, Death Valley is probably the most unusual effort that a major studio tried to market to audiences as a slasher flick. However, it’s just too well acted and confidently made to dismiss – and if you have the patience for its oddball blend of styles, the film is entertaining in its own quietly efficient way.