31 Days to Scare ~ Death Valley (1982)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: 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.

Stars: Peter Billingsley, Paul Le Mat, Catherine Hicks, Stephen McHattie, Wilford Brimley, Edward Herrmann

Director: Dick Richards

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: One of my bucket list road trips remains an out West journey to visit the Grand Canyon and drive through Death Valley.  So perhaps watching this 1982 horror movie about a family that get tangled up in a murder mystery after the precocious youngster of their trio stumbles onto a murder scene and makes off with a key piece of evidence that can identify the killer wasn’t the best advertisement to pack up the car next summer.  On the other hand, as presented by director Dick Richards from Richard Rothstein’s original screenplay, Death Valley is a lot less intense than it could have been and that’s both a good thing at times and a bad thing when it sadly should count the most.

Shall we pump the brakes for a second, take the first exit, and make a quick loop to see what got us here?  We’re back in the early days of the slasher film when the studios were clamoring for content, but no one had truly settled on what was going to be attractive to audiences.  They’d later find out that this crowd preferred as much violence, gore, and nudity as possible, so these initial attempts were cautious on all of the above elements and that’s readily apparent in Death Valley.  Even the casual observer can tell Richards is uncomfortable with bloody violence and has included only the bare minimum and though there was obviously more nudity in one scene early on, it’s been edited down to a quick glimpse to protect the innocent. 

This leaves Death Valley feeling like a movie that’s almost embarrassed to be what it is and what it is ain’t that awful, just half-baked…or maybe overbaked depending on how you look at it.  At 87 minutes, Rothstein doesn’t quite have enough plot to fill a feature length so there’s more family drama included than audiences of that time would have cared for.  Take the opening of the movie for instance, with child star Peter Billingsley (a year before his iconic role in A Christmas Story) as Billy walking around NYC with his dad (the late Edward Hermann of The Lost Boys) before saying goodbye as Billy heads off with his divorced mom for a trip to the other coast with her new boyfriend.  This is precious time eaten up by melodrama of the Douglas Sirk variety.  The actors are quite stellar and it’s the first indication of the strength of the main cast but, accompanied by a bouncy score, it feels incongruous for what’s to come next.

Arriving in Arizona for their road trip, Billy meets Mike (Paul Le Mat, Puppet Master) the high school sweetheart of his mom Sally (Catherine Hicks, Child’s Play) who has come back into her life after her marriage ended.  Reluctant to accept the new man at first, his aloofness to Mike spurs on his curiosity to explore the sights whenever they stop off at a tourist trap.  That’s how he ends up (rather boldly, like a true New Yorker) going into an RV that has just been occupied by an unseen killer and his latest victims.  Finding a necklace on the ground, he picks it up and walks away with it, only realizing later that it’s the same one the unsettling server (Stephen McHattie, Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal) at their motel wears. Cue the clanging orchestral score to indicate danger. No, really, composer Dana Kaproff’ love of a nice sting is worse than a persistent bee and as effective as it as when it aligns with the action, when it doesn’t it feels like something went wrong in the editing.

While the movie offers a few surprises along the way, including and up to an interesting finale, it has some stretches that get a little iffy where time is concerned.  Like Billy’s evening with a babysitter which is essentially us observing him and his caretaker watching TV while she eyeballs his stash of candy.  Riveting stuff, this is not.  When Richards does put things into motion, there’s a degree of suspense but it’s of the slow-boil variety, never red-hot tension.  It’s fitting that Rothstein went on to create the mystery anthology series The Hitchhiker because Death Valley feels like it could be a predecessor to that show in content and form…and might have worked better within that shorter running time.  This isn’t a skippable effort at all, it’s just a bit of a trip you don’t have to take if you have other destinations, you’d rather get to first.

Movie Review ~ Dune (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people

Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 155 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  Am I a perfect audience member for the newest attempt to adapt Dune, Frank Herbert’s celebrated 1965 novel?  Long thought to be too complex to be translated onto the screen, it was famously attempted by the artist and director Alejandro Jodorowsky who began his work in 1974 before abandoning the project two years into pre-production.  Years later David Lynch more infamously tried his hand at the piece, releasing his completed film in 1984 to disastrous reviews and failing to make back it’s budget at the box office.  While it has gone on to achieve a cult-like status, no one would say it’s any kind of definitive version of the film.  More notable where the two miniseries that aired on the Sci Fi channel, essentially giving that fledgling cable company street cred from the industry and fans at the same time.

Me?  I’ve never seen any adaptation or read the book(s) and while I normally try to do my homework before a remake, reboot, or other comes out, for the version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve arriving in theaters now I decided to chuck it all and do absolutely nothing.  So that’s why I might be the best all-around viewer because I’m coming at it with no pre-conceived notions about the source material or previous adaptations to compare it to or feel like it has to live-up to anything.  The only thing it had to contend with were the monstrous expectations the studio had put by delaying it nearly a year from its original release date, insisting it was an experience best reserved for theaters on the biggest screen possible.

Like the recent release of No Time to Die, I’m willing to admit that while some of the releases that came out during the pandemic lockdown shuttered theaters worked just fine when viewed at home, Dune is a film that deserves to be witnessed on a screen so big it should feel overwhelming…like the movie itself.  This is a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-blue-moon sort of event movie that can’t be replicated completely when seen at home.  Though it was made available on HBOMax the same day it opened in theaters, you can’t compare the two viewings because the movie is the movie and it’s great, but the awe-inspiring visuals are knockouts when projected in their sheer enormity.

Unrestrained praise for the theatrical exhibition aside, Dune is more than anything an example of filmmaking (and a filmmaker) firing on all cylinders where each piece of the cinematic puzzle working together to make something incredible.  Yet to (in my mind) make a film that isn’t worth watching multiple times, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has a clear vision of what this movie is and should be (and, as you’ll know right of the bat…will be in the future) so there is rarely a moment along the way where Dune isn’t absolutely on course in its narrative storyline.  From what I understand, that’s where the previous adaptations have run into trouble.  Herbert’s novels have deeper meanings and storylines with interwoven characters, times, and subplots and to juggle those all is an immense challenge.  The director, along with co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Passengers) and Eric Roth (2018’s A Star is Born) have focused the action and events to be cohesive and trackable – you could likely watch this on mute and still get the idea of what’s happening.

So…what IS happening in Dune, you may ask?  Let me attempt a small breakdown of it all.

Way way WAY in the future, Spice is a valuable resource to anyone that can harvest it and harness it’s power.  With the universe under the command of an unseen Emperor and overseen by various “houses” within the Galactic Empire, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, The Addams Family 2) has been ordered by the Emperor to the planet Arrakis which is the only current source of Spice.  Accompanied by his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman), mother to his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet, Lady Bird) they travel to the planet to find the previous House (led by Stellan Skarsgård, Cinderella, and overseen by My Spy’s Dave Bautista) left the harvesting equipment in disrepair.  Recognizing they were set-up to fail and eventually betrayed by those they trusted, the House of Atreides will need to find favor with the people of Arrakis (and avoid the terrifying sandworms trolling around the Spice fields) if they are to survive a plot that was cruelly set into motion from the top levels of the Empire.

Sounds a lot like another space epic that just ended a few years back, doesn’t it?  It’s not quite the same, but there are ripples of those Shakespearean twists that Star Wars employed so well throughout the film.  Dune very much succeeds on its own merits, however and that’s not just thanks to Villeneuve’s specific direction and eye for visual acuity.  The performances are top notch, and this has to be Chalamet’s best showing since his Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me by Your Name…I’d even say there are times when its better.  Acting can get lost in these spectacles but Chalamet doesn’t let that important aspect slip.  Neither do Ferguson, Isaac, or terrific supporting players Josh Brolin (Oldboy) and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) playing allies to Atriedes that fend off attacks from all sides.  Billed high but seen little is Zendaya (Malcolm & Marie), though she’ll be kept busy enough…later.

Ah…the later aspect of Dune.  It’s now well known this film is but the first chapter of a longer series but how many more and how long will we need to wait until the next one arrives?  Even knowing this is the initial entry point into this world shouldn’t dissuade you from getting out to this one because it’s as standalone a film as can be, with its own thrills and humungous set-pieces that make for breathless action sequences.  At times I wished for subtitles because the sound design is often as complex as the story…but that’s what a home rewatch is for.  And I’ll be getting to that as soon as I’m through with this review. Spice up your life and climb this mountain as soon as possible.