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
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.