Before he was Ralphie, Peter Billingsley made his big-screen debut in 1982’s Death Valley, part modern-day western, part slasher, part thriller, and part relationship drama. The resulting film is better than it deserves to be, and the same can be said of the film’s Blu-ray debut courtesy of Shout! Factory.
Studio: Shout! Factory (licensed through Universal Pictures)
US BD Release Date: December 11, 2012
Original Release Year: 1982
Running Time: 87 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Surround)
Subtitles: English (SDH)
Movie: 3 out of 5
Paul Stanton (Edward Herrmann) spends the day in New York with his son, Billy (Peter Billingsley), before sending him off on a vacation of sorts to Arizona with his mother, Sally (Catherine Hicks), and her former high school sweetheart and new boyfriend, Mike (Paul Le Mat). While travelling through the deserts of Arizona and California, they stop at an abandoned gold mine, where Billy explores the area and enters a motor home in which the inhabitants have just been murdered. Although the killer cleaned up the crime scene, he left a gold bullfrog necklace behind, which Billy finds on the floor of the RV. Later that day, when Mike, Sally, and Billy see the same RV that appears to have crashed off the side of the road. Feeling guilty, Billy hands over the necklace to the sheriff (Wilford Brimley) and confesses to have taken it from the vehicle. As it turns out, this is the first lead the sheriff has regarding a string of serial murders that have been taking place in his jurisdiction, as he knows who the necklace may belong to, and Billy is the only witness.
Death Valley is a bit of a hodgepodge of movie genres, mixing western, family drama, thriller, slasher, and road movie motifs and cliches. Released by Universal Pictures near the height of the slasher craze, the promotional materials for the film play up that angle. But for a slasher film, this is quite tame, and the gore and bloodletting are fairly minimal. In fact, the stage blood used by director Dick Richards often resembles catsup or red paint. The screenplay by Richard Rothstein handles the drama of a broken family and the problems associated with the bonding of a surrogate father and child quite well, although it does occasionally slow down the pacing of the film considerably. Paul Le Mat (American Graffiti) portrays the awkwardness of being a new man in Billy and Sally’s life with a level of believability and sympathy, Catherine Hicks (Star Trek IV) is very good as the loving mother trying to move on with her life, but the real star and stand-out performance of the piece is Peter Billingsley, best known to American audiences prior to Death Valley and A Christmas Story as Messy Marvin in a series of television commercials for Hershey’s chocolate syrup. This is not your typical child performance, as Billingsley brings some definite authenticity to the role of a child in mortal danger and would rather have his family back together.
Video: 3 out of 5
The 1080p transfer, compressed using the AVC codec and opening up the film’s intended 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio to 1.78:1 is much better than I had expected. Colors are slightly muted but consistent. Detail is very good, allowing the viewer to see the grains of sand in the desert and textures of the pavement. Contrast is also very good, with bright whites and deep blacks, while still retaining details without much crushing. Film grain is evident, but not distracting, although the print used for this transfer does have some occasional specks of dirt and other blemishes.
Audio: 3 out of 5
Although not listed on the packaging, Shout! Factory has included a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack to complement the film’s original 2.0 mono mix. While the 5.1 mix provides a wider soundstage, the surround channels are rarely used, and when they are engaged it is mostly for music and ambient effects. Overall, the fidelity is somewhat thin, but that is more likely due to the technology used at the time the audio was recorded.
Special Features: 3 out of 5
Shout! Factory has packaged Death Valley in a standard 2-disc Blu-ray case, which includes a standard definition DVD containing the same content as the Blu-ray disc.
Audio Commentary With Director Dick Richards: Edwin Samuleson moderates this commentary track, often prodding Richards with questions about the film and his career.
Trailers: Theatrical trailers and TV Spots for Death Valley, as well as trailers for The Island and They Live, all in standard definition.
Overall: 3 out of 5
Shout! Factory, through their Scream! Factory label, brings another somewhat obscure horror/thriller from the Universal catalog to Blu-ray with a decent audio and video presentation. As would be expected of a film of this type and age, the bonus materials are rather thin, consisting of only a mediocre audio commentary and a handful of trailers. Fans will be quite pleased with the presentation.