There’s precious little to say about “Death Valley,” the most alarmingly mundane slasher flick I’ve ever seen. Even Paul Le Mat, who starred in the movie, was pretty tongue-tied about it. “Yeah, that was a little bit too violent for me,” Le Mat said when I interviewed him a few weeks ago. “But my scenes were OK. Catherine Hicks was fun to work with. There’s just no getting away from violent product.”
The most vivid memory Le Mat had was: “I liked the idea of my character trying to get back together with his old girlfriend and then being stuck out in the desert and dealing with danger.” He also said it was fun working with Peter Billingsley, the little blonde actor with those adorable spectacles who one year later charmed audiences around the world in “A Christmas Story.” But even Billingsley is enervated in this cookie-cutter thriller.
As Janet Maslin of the New York Times noted in her review, the director Dick Richards’ “aptitude for horror is virtually nil. The film, photographed in an incongruously placid style, has so little to do with the horror genre that it begins as if it were ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.'” Indeed, the first scene of the film involves Billingsley being escorted around New York City by his father (Edward Herrmann), who’s recently divorced his mother (Hicks), as refined classical music plays. Hicks and Billingsley are about to take a vacation driving through the California desert, joined by Hicks’ high school boyfriend (Le Mat), much to Billingsley’s chagrin. The pouty little tyke cries, Herrmann tearfully tries to cheer the boy up, and that’s it for Herrmann’s presence–the entire rest of the film is set in the title location. The whole scene could easily have been excised.
From there on out, the only drama stems from Le Mat’s blue collar character trying, in vain, to bond with the repugnant little professor’s son. The scenes of their sparring are punctuated by a madman (Stephen McHattie) slitting throats, stabbing chests, putting that knife to work in trailers, motel rooms and other sparse locales scattered throughout the desert. Billingsley stumbles into one such trailer shortly after a killing and picks up a clue: a necklace left behind. Later, he notices that his waiter (McHattie) has the same necklace. He points this out to a sheriff (Wilford Brimley) who is later dispatched by the killer…but wait! We see McHattie walking ahead of Brimley as another person’s disembodied hand, wielding a knife, comes into view and slashes Brimley. That means there’s two killers! If the anticlimactic ending doesn’t put you to sleep, you must be an insomniac.
And that, as I said, is about all there is to say about “Death Valley.” It’s interesting to note, however, that the first three films directed by Richards (who seems to be entirely on autopilot here) were also the first three films produced by later billionaire Jerry Bruckheimer: “The Culpepper Cattle Co.,” “Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins,” and “Farewell, My Lovely” (with Robert Mitchum as the Raymond Chandler creation Philip Marlowe). Only “Culpepper” is available on Netflix. Richard directed two more movies, the 1983 domestic drama “Man, Woman and Child” and the 1986 film “Heat,” in which Burt Reynolds played a Las Vegas bouncer (I read a rumour that Reynolds apparently angered Richards one day and the director stormed off the set). Little to nothing has been heard from Richards since.
You can watch “Death Valley” via this decently transferred YouTube rip.