“Kids in peril” horror and thrillers have always been the most fascinating to me. A precocious young person matching wits against a charismatic killer in something like “Night of the Hunter” or even a literal murderous creature of pure as in “Silver Bullet” or the first two “Child’s Play” films. I find the best of these kinds of movies play on us in two ways: first, by gaining our sympathy for the weakest among us and second by playing on some of our own buried childhood fears about very real boogeymen stalking in the night.
One-time photographer turned filmmaker Dick Richards took a stab at this mini-genre with the 1982 road kill thriller “Death Valley” with varying degrees of success, represented here in a pristine (if not feature-rich) disc from “Scream Factory.”
The kid and killer in question are “A Christmas Story” hero Peter Billingsley and the star of the excellent “Pontypool,” the sharp-featured Stephen McHattie, playing a roadside murderer who targets a young boy on vacation who may have seen a little too much. While visiting his soon-to-be-divorced mom for a road trip with her new boyfriend (Catherine Hicks, Paul Le Mat), Billy (Billingsly) unwittingly stumbles upon a crime scene left by the homicidal pit stop diner waiter Hal (McHattie), joining the two in a game of cat and mouse across the desert.
It’s a mix of domestic drama, black comedy, and brief flashes of gore (with a little bit of out-of-nowhere T&A) in the first act, featuring a cast of “hey, I know you”-types all wrapped up with a twist that is as strange as it is unnecessary.
Billingsly does the cute-smart kid thing here, not quite warming to his wife’s cowboy beau Mike, while she carries on a chipper act hoping the two will just get along. Typically, in this kind of movie, the kid would end up playing the detective, trying to convince a doubting mom that there’s a killer on their trail. But “Death Valley” sidesteps that step entirely, framing the whole story around Hal’s pursuit of Billy–and the unfortunate victims that get between them in a lot of daytime horror punctuated by regular TV composer Dana Kaproff’s aggressive score.
Ultimately, “Death Valley” is a curiosity more interesting for its cast than anything actually on the screen.
Special features and presentation
For all that, Scream Factory did show this feature a lot of love in terms of its 1080p visuals, giving us sharp details and bright, healthy colors (maybe to the film’s detriment–every time there’s a spray of blood it looks like cheap paint). Released here as a DVD/Blu-ray combo, the hi-def disc includes a DTS HD mono track while the DVD includes Dolby Digital mono.
The release might be considered spare when stacked against other Scream Factory discs in terms of supplemental material: Richards provides a commentary track, and both the theatrical trailer and TV spot for “Death Valley” are included here (you can see the theatrical trailer below). Unlike many of the higher-profile Scream Factory discs, this one doesn’t include specially-commissioned cover art, instead using the theatrical poster with stills from the feature in the interior.
“Death Valley” will be available as a Blu-ray/DVD combo on December 11th from Scream Factory.