Saturday, October 13, 2012

Death Valley (1982) dir. Dick Richards

Logline: Billy (Peter Billingsley) is a precocious tyke on vacation in the Death Valley region of Arizona with his recently divorced mother (Catherine Hicks) and her new cowboy boyfriend (Paul Le Mat). When Billy unknowingly stumbles upon a murder scene in an RV and takes a souvenir, the killer makes it his mission to stop Billy from squealing.

Crime in the Past: No specific crime that incites the killers' actions, but we are informed that Death Valley has had a recent past of serial slashings and that the killer(s) were never apprehended.

Bodycount: 7, all of whom shall dosey doe no more.

Themes/Moral Code: Besides some perfunctory motions towards themes like "divorce is tough, huh?" and "stepfathers are hard to like," I found the film to actually be a cheeky essay on the effects of tourism on our ability to apprehend danger. Basically, the film posits that certain branches of tourism romanticize the exotic dangers of a given location (either historical or contemporary), making them "kid-friendly" while obscuring the actual dangers present. I mean, heck, why would you bring your child to a place called "Death Valley" in the first place and then let him wander around in the desert (like Billy's parents do, despite having passed a sign that read "Survival Hints - 500 Yds" as they rolled in)? The very name of the place hints at some lurking danger within, but the family's first stop is at an interactive frontier town full of actors playing out scripted gunfights and begging the parents for tips. This bizarre amusement park stands as a simulacrum intruding upon and supplanting the real danger of Death Valley that's been forgotten-- walking around a fake town and having fake gunslingers shooting at you is great fun until you realize that at one point in time these dangers were real and oh hey, little Billy, there actually is a man walking around Death Valley trying to kill you. Death Valley makes this connection literal when McHattie's killer tracks Billy to the amusement park, dons a stetson and a bandana over his face, and starts shooting live rounds at Billy, who thinks it's all great fun, failing to recognize the very real danger he's in. This Westworld-esque sequence makes its critique of tourism clear: just because the entrance to Death Valley has a concession stand doesn't make it any less deathly. The film critiques the same sort of cognitive confusion that convinces people to jump out of their cars on safari, to walk up and pet the pretty lion: somewhere in our brains we know that "lion" = "hungry wild animal" but on a more dominant level we've been coerced by the structured commodification of the danger by our tourism-based society, where we're permitted to interact with the unreal foreign environments around us without really reflecting on our actions. This, as Death Valley demonstrates, can have consequences.

Killer's Motivation: The killers are two twin brothers (both played by the inimitable Stephen McHattie) whose motivation is a little nebulous. Their father used to work at an old abandoned gold mine, but the brothers seem convinced (despite all signs pointing otherwise) that the mine is still rich with gold, and so are anxious to protect it from anyone who moseys too near (protect in this case meaning kill mercilessly). This is what happens to a bunch of teens who park their RV too close, and what drives the killers to keep killing past this is the threat of being discovered (brought about by Billy's budding kleptomania: he swipes one of the brothers' matching necklace pendants, accidentally left at the murder scene). But, yeah, it's also apparent that the brothers are casual psychopaths-- when you're tap-dancing and singing a country ditty on top of a tin roof in order to frighten the little boy inside who you're planning to kill, it's arguable that insanity has made you lose focus on your immediate goals.

Final Girl: Rather than a final girl we have to settle for Billy, our final boy. He serves the same basic function as a final girl (threatened, chased after, retaliates) and also, because of his tender age, has a similar effect on the audience w/r/t identification (if, as Carol Clover theorizes, we typically feel afraid in a slasher movie because we can comfortably identify with the "helpless" female protagonist who experiences terror as she confronts and emasculates a raging masculine menace in crisis, this works just as well for a prepubescent tot). And wouldn't you know it, Billy proves himself to be an adequate hero. He's a quite sharp grammar snoot who puts together the pieces of the fishy business surrounding the murders fairly quickly and wastes no time informing the local sheriff (Wilford Brimley) of his suspicions. When it comes to being chased around by McHattie's deranged siblings, he fares well here too: he has at least one good MacGuyver moment and near the end even lives up to his city slickin' cowboy aspirations by shooting (!) one of the brothers (there's your "phallic appropriation," Dr. Clover).

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  Dick Richards' Death Valley is the best film I've seen since the inaugural installment of Slashtober. The film manages to pull off a deft balancing act of genuine tension-building and inspired slasher cheesiness. The former aspect crops up in the form of various plot peculiarities, such as an unusually sexual cucumber slicing scene and a long gag sequence wherein a tragically rotund teenaged babysitter hired to look after Billy hesitantly but methodically asks for permission to eat every last piece of junk food in the motel room before declaring, "Now who wants ice cream?" These moments are a joy, but one can find some of equal caliber in a slasher as ineffective as Movie House Massacre (1984)-- rather, it's the film's expertly crafted suspense angle that elevates Death Valley to the position of a minor genre classic. Most of the credit for the success of the film's suspense can be laid on the wiry shoulders of Stephen McHattie for his performance as the calm, steely-eyed killer. It's remarkable the way McHattie is able to blend casual, gentlemanly hospitality with barely-contained hostility in a scene like the one he shares in his home with Wilford Brimley's sheriff, who is quietly sniffing around for clues. In this scene, both men know the other is lying and we sit in rapt dread, waiting to see who will drop his mask first. My favorite McHattie moment would be one wherein he calmly describes to young Billy, who has locked himself in the motel bathroom for safety, how he'll dismantle the cheaply-made door and come get him by peeling off the molding, elaborating on each step in the process as he performs it. Chilling stuff. Billingsley acquits himself well in these scenes, too, his wide-eyed terror appearing always at least convincing. The film has a lame, mildly preposterous resolution, but that doesn't prevent the previous eighty minutes from being a taut, thematically-rich thriller. Speaking of thrills, I couldn't be more thrilled that Scream Factory is releasing Death Valley on blu-ray in December-- how a film this good could have missed the jump from VHS to digital home video until now is beyond my comprehension.

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