AUGUST 22, 2010
I’d estimate that if I looked at a list of all the horror movies that played at midnight at the New Bev on Saturdays, it would be pretty evenly split between ones I’ve seen and ones I haven’t – but Death Valley is the rare horror film they showed that I hadn’t even HEARD of before, which is odd as it has quite a number of recognizable actors (Peter Billingsley, Catherine Hicks, Stephen McHattie, Edward Herrmann, and the immortal Wilford Brimley), and a fairly commercial concept – it’s not like this is some weird, rightfully obscure cult movie. Hell its even from a major studio (Universal), yet it’s never even been released on DVD. Come on, it stars the director of (Universal’s own) Couples Retreat!
I was actually surprised how much of the film focused on Billingsley, as this was pre-Christmas Story and thus he was even younger, with his giant glasses even more disproportionally comical. Also, it’s an R rated horror movie, but also one from a major studio, so there’s no chance in hell anyone old enough to watch the film could think he was going to die or even get hurt, yet he’s the one at the center of most of the horror scenes. His stepdad? That guy could die. Ralphie, however? He’s safe.
But damn, if I had seen this as a kid, before I understood movie rules, I probably would have been scared shitless from start to finish. After a long prologue with his real dad, Billingsley starts seeing the killer’s car almost instantly (sort a Duel-like scene) after he flies to Arizona with his mom to see her boyfriend , and the guy is nearby almost constantly for the rest of the film. There are a number of terrific little setpieces, such as when the killer (McHattie, dressed as a bandit) stalks him around the little “museum” at the old west town that they visit, with Ralphie (sorry, I forget his name in the actual movie) thinking it’s all part of the act.
And then there’s the babysitter. Whoever found this actress is some sort of genius. We’ve all grown up on 80s movies with babysitters who are either hot (Adventures in Babysitting, Halloween, etc) or old hags (Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, which yes was 1991 but I’m trying to pump out all these reviews before I leave for London, so don’t give me any shit), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like this. First of all, no offense, she looks like a boy, and it wasn’t for a while that I knew for sure it was a girl. Second, she eats like a pig, but one with OCD. After scarfing all of Ralphie’s snacks (except for a Twinkie – unless that was edited for time), she sits and folds the wrapper up, making it as loud as possible, all while the kid is trying to watch a cowboy movie on TV (at a really weird angle – he sits right near the TV but at a 90 degree angle to it, turning his head completely to the left. Poor bastard’s gonna have problems later in life.). It’s a really odd scene, and I doubt anyone was sad when McHattie slit her throat a few minutes later (after she steals someone’s soda!).
Speaking of Ralphie’s cowboy obsession – I must say, I’m pretty proud of the midnight crowd for not making a single “You’ll shoot your eye out!” joke (at least, not aloud), despite the fact that it was very easy to do so, as he was constantly playing with a toy gun and of course gets to shoot a real one near the end of the film, when McHattie finally stops fucking around and breaks into their room. There usually isn’t much MST3king going on at the midnight shows (because the crowd there, unlike the crowds at some other local revival houses, actually like the movies they’re going to see), but the film was seemingly begging for the joke to be made. Just goes to show how much better the Bev is; I bet it would have been repeated nonstop where they show Birdemic and shit like that.
Another odd thing about the movie – the stepdad. He’s understandably not the biggest fan of the kid (he’s a real dick to him; at one point he just starts playing Simon when the guy is trying to talk to him), but I’ve rarely seen an adult make such little effort to hide his contempt for a kid. He’s like Sam Rockwell in Joshua after a while; rolling his eyes at him and laughing behind his back and what not. Hell, for a while I actually thought he might be in cahoots with McHattie – there’s a moment of faint recognition between the two men when they stop at a diner where McHattie is employed. Also, since they got Herrmann to play his real dad, I kept thinking he’d come back into the movie to save the day when the stepdad turned bad or something. But no, Herrmann just has that opening scene and then never appears again; I guess I’ll have to stick to Domestic Disturbance for that sort of scenario.
I wasn’t too thrilled with the climax, which finds Ralphie running from the villain’s car, only for McHattie to jump out of nowhere and then get run over by his own car, which was being driven by Ralphie’s parents (surprise!). But I mean – what the fuck were they doing? Why were they driving at high speed right behind him? Why not like, I dunno, roll down the goddamn window and say “Hey, it’s us!” instead of terrifying the kid? It’s one of those things that makes for a nice little “twist” but makes zero friggin sense if you think about it for a nanosecond.
But it’s a decent thriller, and I have no idea why they haven’t released it on DVD. The film print was immaculate – clearly someone is concerned with giving it some respect. And it might even get a PG-13 rating today; I wasn’t really thinking about a rating while I watched it, so maybe I’m way wrong (I also dozed for a few minutes here and there), but I can’t really think of anything more violent than what you saw in the PG-13 Stepfather or Prom Night remakes. If so, kids could watch it and be scared shitless, the way we were with stuff like Lady in White. Remake! I mean, Re-release!
What say you?