Remember that kid Ralphie from A Christmas Story? Of course you do. You watch it every freaking holiday season. Anyway before actor Peter Billingsley did that, he was in this thriller/horror film about vacationing in Death Valley called… Death Valley. And remember Andy’s mom from Child’s Play, Catherine Hicks? Yup, she’s in this one too playing a mother. Only connection from Child’s Play to this movie that I can make is Peter Billingsley has this evil doll like stare. Oh and Wilford Brimley even shows up in a few scenes to play sheriff. Just long enough to get a check. That diabeetus medication isn’t cheap, son.
Well the fine ghouls over at Scream! Factory ported over a solid transfer of both video and audio and present this surprisingly suspense film on Blu-ray. Although not crammed with special features, we do get audio commentary from the director Dick Richards and Edwin Samuelson of The Cinephiles for a pretty informative commentary. Outside of that, a few trailers and a TV spot.
So what’s the movie about? Well, this kid wants a Red Ryder BB gun… sorry wrong film. Death Valley focuses on young Billy (Peter Billingsley) who we see having a rather pleasant day with his father in the Big Apple. That’s New York City or NYC for the laymen. They discuss Billy leaving the city to go to Death Valley with his mother for a small vacation in a rather touching discussion they have and you learn about his parent’s divorce. Billy’s mother, Sally (Catherine Hicks) kinda tosses Billy into her new relationship and wants him to get along with herself and Mike, her new boyfriend. In his defense, he actually does try by talking to Billy and giving him a cap gun pistol as a present, exclaiming it was the same model that Billy the Kid used (Billy has a cowboy fascination), but Billy (the kid Billy, not Billy the Kid. Confused?) schools him on the actual model. Suck it, Mike!
While wandering around COMPLETELY UNSUPERVISED in Death Valley, which by the way, Sally gave him permission to do. I’m not really feeling this mom character, Billy stumbles across an RV, which moments before had served the purpose of a crime scene where three travelers were killed. They don’t find the bodies, but Billy steals a medallion he finds on board. This RV has a beautiful ‘Macaroni and Cheese’ colored shag carpet with wood paneling, proving that the 70’s had no sense of decency. Mike comes and finds him and they go about their day. Billy recognizes the same medallion on a man at a diner they are eating at, instantly feeling a strange suspicion of the man. They also see that the same RV they saw in Death Valley is being pulled from the bottom of a cliff and they tell Sheriff Diabeetus (cause it’s Wilford Brimley. Get it?) that they had seen it earlier and Billy hands over the medallion he found. The Sheriff knows who it belongs to and sets off to ask the person of interest about it, but doesn’t come back from the questioning. Here’s your check, Mr. Brimley! Thanks for passing by the set and playing Sheriff!
Now that the killer has the medallion back in his possession, you learn that there could possibly be two killers. The sheriff, unknowingly that he was talking to the killer(s), revealed who found the pendant and where which hotel they were staying at. Wow, Sheriff. Ever heard of a thing called confidentiality, especially when you are questioning someone you suspect to be involved in the murder? So now, the killer begins tracking and stalking Billy, killing anyone who gets in the way. This is all going on while Mike tries to have a relationship with Billy and reach out to him while Sally just does typical mom stuff.
The film does a great job of drawing out suspense as they play their cat and mouse game and you wonder if there actually are two killers, which is finally revealed in a hair raising ‘lights out’ scene. Peter Billingsley easily steals the show. As a child actor, you completely buy all of his emotions, especially his resistance and then acceptance of Mike. Also, the fear in his eyes when he is alone in a hotel room being hunted down by the killer. His performance is amazing. This kid out acts all these hacks (Channing Tatum, Mark Wahlberg or anyone else I have beef with at the moment.
You can find this movie reasonably priced at any video store or you can order it from Scream! Factory directly and you should. It’s frightening and tense film and the restoration makes this film look real good. Like a cheese cake on one of those spinny plates at the bakery. You know you want it. Not just a slice. The whole thing.
On a final note, this film’s director, Dick Richards, was considered to direct Jaws, but was dropped from the project because he couldn’t distinguish the shark from a whale… if only, Dick. If only. Your career could have been something else.
Check out this review and others at The Lost Highway!