Film Review: Death Valley (1982)


What’s worse than a horror film that’s bad? A horror film that’s bad because it’s boring and annoying. This is the issue with Death Valley, a slasher film with an interesting concept, that fails in the execution in multiple respects.

The film follows the family of Billy (Peter Billingsley of A Christmas Story), his mother Sally (Catherine Hicks), and his new stepdad Mike (Paul Le Mat), as they go on a road-trip through Death Valley as family bonding. However, when they end up stumbling on the aftermath of a serial killer, and Billy stumbles upon evidence that could put the killer away, the killer begins stalking the family.

Now, on paper, this should make for a great horror film. It takes a giallo-esque horror plot, and combines it with the Spielbergian family thriller that was becoming en vogue in the 80s. In practice, however, this doesn’t work. The reason for this is that for this to work, you need a particular formula of chemistry. Sally and Billy have to have rapport and feel like they have a history, so their part of the relationship works. Sally and Mike also need to have a rapport, with shared jokes and history so we buy their relationship – why they’re together. This part is especially important, as it sets up why Billy feels like an outsider between his mom and stepdad, and serves as an obstacle for Mike and Billy’s bonding.

Unfortunately, that chemistry doesn’t come together. I don’t get a sense that Sally knows Billy’s likes and dislikes – but she doesn’t come across like the kind of parent who wouldn’t know those things either. Billy just feels somewhat traumatized and distant from his family throughout the early portions of the film. Worse, Sally and Mike’s rapport never really comes up on screen. There’s some expository dialog setting up that they have a relationship, but it is never followed up on later in the film. They’re together because the script says they’re together.

As far as the rest of the film goes, it’s pretty much a pretty basic slasher film. There are some good pieces of tension throughout the film, which are executed well. There are some issues with the film either poorly balancing sexuality and violence (a woman seen topless immediately before she and her boyfriend are killed), or really stupid stereotyping (fat person is lured to their death by food).

The problem is that the family bits, which far too often fall on their face, take up a lot of the film, and they’re just not entertaining to watch. I feel like the film could have merited from a few passes from a script doctor with a good grasp of dialog – particularly family dialog – like the romantic or familial banter equivalent of Quentin Tarantino or Joss Whedon.

The film is available from Scream Factory on a Blu-Ray/DVD set, which has an audio commentary track, but I’m not sold enough on this film that I’d want to listen to the audio commentary, except maybe as a rental or checked out from the library.

Death Valley (1982) is available from Amazon.com.

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