Billy (Peter Billingsley) is shocked to discover that his father (Edward Herrmann) mother Sally (Catherine Hicks) are getting divorced. Torn away from his beloved New York City, Billy is relocated to Arizona along with her mother’s childhood sweetheart, Mike (Paul LeMat) whom she has reconnected with.
To make things worse, upon arriving in Death Valley for a vacation before their move, Billy stumbles upon a crime scene and becomes enmeshed in a life or death struggle with a mysterious man who is stalking the family.
Peter Billingsley is easily the star of the show. It’s a lot for any actor to handle, much less a child actor, and Billingsley plays everything right. Catherine Hicks is also notable as Billingsley’s mother. Before Child’s Play, Hicks was playing a mother doing everything possible to protect her child from murderous danger. She’s a very capable actress, and doesn’t fall prey to the sentimentality inherent in the situations thrown at the character. In a small role, Edward Herrmann is great as Billingley’s father; the father/son relationship is built very quickly and effectively. This sets up the entire dilemma of the film with the boy’s unhappiness at the prospect of his life with his mother and her new boyfriend.
Suspense films live or die on the set piece: those critical moments when a central character is in danger, and everything and anything can happen. Little Billy has a few such moments, and none is better than a dramatic and genuinely eerie scene in a frontier era town full of tourists and shoddy recreations of life in those times. It begins with Billy alone in the dusty street, as a man dressed as a bandit draws his gun. Billy stands frozen, confused momentarily. Is this real, or is it all in fun? The tension continues as he explores an empty, claustrophobic museum of artifacts of the by gone era. I won’t say anymore, but it’s a fantastically built sequence, and the point of view of the child is used to great effect.
This Blu-ray is a bit of a shock, as I was expecting the film to look pretty grubby considering its relative obscurity. The materials used to strike this print were in great shape. The disc sports a good amount of detail, colors are natural and warm, the print damage is relegated to a few specks here and there. The mono soundtracks have a nice feel to them, with dialogue that is clear, and the score by Dana Kaproff is allowed its due. Bonus features are kept to a minimum, with a decent commentary by director Dick Richards, a trailer and TV spot.
The early 1980’s was the era of the slasher film, but sadly, Dick Richards’ Death Valley got lost in the shuffle and sank into obscurity. Thanks to Shout! Factory, the film has been released on video for the first time since the days of VHS. This surprisingly effective thriller from director Dick Richards features a great central performance from Peter Billingsley, miles away from A Christmas Story’s ‘Ralphie’, for which he is most known. Death Valley really shines with its interesting mystery, likable and realistic characters, and a few tense set pieces. It’s a hidden gem worth seeking out.
Film Score: 3.5/5 Disc Score: 3/5