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.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Thing (1982) {Trailer}

Synopsis: A twelve-man research team stationed in Antarctica finds an alien being that has fallen from the sky and has been buried for over 100,000 years.

Release Date: June 25th, 1982

Thoughts: It’s often nice not only to look back at classic films but also to check out their previews. Dig too far back (say to the ‘50s or ‘60s) and you’re likely to get the whole movie spoiled for you but there was a nice pocket of time in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when the art of crafting a slick teaser was at its peak.  1979’s Alien will remain my all time favorite teaser but this one for 1982’s The Thing is high up on my list as well.  A remake of The Thing from Another World that was actually improved upon by director John Carpenter, the arctic-set The Thing was surprisingly released in early summer.  It’s holds up exceedingly well all these years later and is considered one of my old stand-bys if I want to pop in a scary sure-thing.  Along with its snazzy Drew Struzan poster (check out the Struzan doc Drew: The Man Behind the Poster for the story of how it came to be), the promotional machine for The Thing was firing on all cylinders.

 

Want another teaser for The Thing?  Here’s an even earlier one!

Mid-Day Mini ~ In & Out

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A midwestern teacher questions his sexuality after a former student makes a comment about him at the Academy Awards.

Stars: Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Tom Selleck, Matt Dillon, Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley, Bob Newhart, Gregory Jbara, Shaw Hatosy, Zak Orth, Lauren Ambrose, Alexandra Holden

Director: Frank Oz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Here’s a case of a movie with a preview and a set-up that works better than the film itself.  The premise of a small town teacher being outed at a national level by a former student nearly on the eve of his wedding has comic mileage written all over it.  The problem is the movie itself is so silly, so frustrating, so not satisfying that it trumps any positivity you had for the film going in.  Though I’ve tried on more than one occasion to find some appreciation for In & Out since it was released in 1997 the appeal of this movie still escapes me.

Maybe it’s because the movie takes place in what could best be described as an alternate reality…an oddball version of the modern world as we know it.  That’s not entirely by accident, I don’t think, but is a by-product of writer Paul Rudnick’s kooky style that may work for some films (Jeffrey, The Addams Family) but really fail him when going for a more (ahem) straight-forward tale.

Hey, this is the movies so there’s something to be said for some suspension of disbelief but In & Out pushes the line too far…starting with an Oscar ceremony that defies description.  Rudnick is known for his playful skewering of Hollywood and its vain nature under his pseudonym Libby Gelman-Waxner and he goes for broke in showcasing Hollywood’s biggest night as a name-dropping, in-joke telling, overblown affair.

When mega star (and judging from the clips mega-untalented) Cameron Drake (Dillon) outs his high school teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) when he accepts his Best Actor Oscar it sends Howard’s small town life into chaos as the gossip hungry media descend on his quaint town just as he’s preparing to be married to his seriously patient fiancé (Cusack, Working Girl).  A beloved teacher and member of the community, everyone seems to turn their back on Howard when the gay rumors start flying.

This is what really makes me mad about the movie.  Yes, I see that Rudnick is trying to make a point about acceptance but having an entire town turn into ignorant cartoons (“Did this Barbra Streisand do something to you?”) is icky to watch.  Even if this was released in 1997, I think the world was a little farther along in acceptance at that time.  The way that this tight-knit community cold shoulders Howard is not funny, it’s unsettling.

To be fair, the film does have a few nice moments…notably Cusack’s profanity laced tirade late in the film that probably earned her her Oscar nomination.  There’s also a too short scene between the older women of the town (including Debbie Reynolds as Kline’s mother) discussing some of their secrets they haven’t shared.  While it’s nice to see rugged star Tom Selleck play against type, there’s no explanation as to why his Hollywood reporter character is granted access to film anywhere he pleases…including Howard’s wedding and a graduation ceremony that he’d have no business being at.

The whole affair as directed by Frank Oz is merely in service to Rudnick’s clumsily executed plot that puts people where they need to be for no other reason than it’s what Rudnick wanted.  There are some serious continuity problems as it relates to cross country travel and the movie seems to exist without any observance of days of the week.

Even with likable lead Kline and a few sly turns by a cast packed with trusted character actors, this film stinks…though I’ve tried to wake up and smell the roses a few times the smell of failed opportunity is still all over the movie.