Tuesday, July 15, 2008

DEATH VALLEY (2004) d. David Kebo & Rudi Liden

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Setting a film in a desert bestows many benefits on the final product. The intensity and harshness of the setting immediately adds a layer of emotion to the story and another level of energy to the scenes that must be composed. The desert is the home of twisted and tough creatures that have to struggle for survival, and if your film is a melodrama, the desert becomes almost like another character against which the battle is joined. Whether it was Clint Eastwood’s clash with sun, sky and thirst in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY or Tura Satana fighting with every guy she can taunt in FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL KILL, desert melodramas are a fascinating part of film history and continue to be a well writers and directors mine, even when they are making misery epics like WOLF CREEK. DEATH VALLEY, originally titled MOJAVE when it was made in 2004, is a desert melodrama through and through, but it takes its inspiration from DELIVERANCE, even though it has more in common with a lot of other predecessors.

DEATH VALLEY is the story of four friends, Josh, Anthony, Daniel and Brick, who head out to the desert to join a rave, take some mescaline, meet some ravers like Amber and then afterward find they’ve gotten in way over their heads. As they awake the next morning, they discover they have run afoul of some mean-spirited locals who have set them up, first just to make mischief, but then as events spin out of control, the dirt-bike gang’s intent becomes murderous. Friends and allies are forced to reach deep inside to find the strength to fight for their lives, or they will end up as just another bleached skeleton staring up at the unforgiving sun for eternity.

DEATH VALLEY has a lot of things going for it, but just as much going against it. On the positive side, the story, while derivative and obvious in its direction, is just almost as much about exploring the characters as it is an action or a “horror” film (this is mis-marketed as having any connection to horror), so as a result, you have the time to appreciate the best part of the film, the desert photography. Between the real-time and time-lapse shots, or the close-up and panoramic scope, there is some very attractive camera work that lends a picturesque aesthetic to a film that could have gone the route of THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake, which is a loathsome piece of garbage. Even though some may pick this up hoping it is a vile sump of ooze like any of the “torture porn” flicks, it isn’t that at all and it remained true to its creed of being a desert melodrama with some action thrown in for good measure. Another strong element is the story is also restrained in many ways, which lends it a feel of verisimilitude. None of the characters act in a “superhuman” or an “action hero” manner, defying physics or biology in any way. There is some semi-graphic violence, but even that was fairly restrained in its nature, and had the rape scene (which was tame by modern standards) been removed, this film might have been more like its distant cousin THE SADIST, and been more about character interplay and gone even deeper into their souls, thus saving it from the cinematic purgatory where it became stuck.

The problems with this film are simple. First, it was hard for me to really develop sympathy with the main characters, who start off as thrill-seeking, drug-using ravers. By the end, I was cheering for them, but it took a long time for that feeling of empathy to develop and it kept me from building any sense of bond with the filmmakers. Second, there is really nothing to distinguish DEATH VALLEY from films that have already mined this theme, the imagery or both. As a desert melodrama, the bad guys aren’t nearly as inbred and creepy as the original THE HILLS HAVE EYES. As a gang movie, the antagonists are not as terrifying as those in THE WARRIORS or as over the top as the creeps in MAD MAX. There isn’t the ludicrous frolic and fisticuffs of THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, which this film has a lot in common with at times, neither does it have the counterculture appeal and the thoughtful underpinnings of THE VANISHING POINT. Finally, Arch Hall Jr. left one of the most lasting impressions of sadistic cruelty and psychotic silliness in THE SADIST, so that anyone who sees that movie will have his leering face forever etched in their memory. No one in DEATH VALLEY can pick up that torch and carry it, and it is too bad. The gang jerks in DEATH VALLEY are racists, which seems out of place in a film that really isn’t trying to explore that angle. They are leering and violent, but it is unclear what has caused them to be that way, and if time isn’t taken to explore them and they must remain static, then more energy needed to be put into delving deep into the main characters. The principal actors of Josh (Eric Christian Olson), Daniel (Rider Strong of Boy Meets World fame), Anthony (Bumper Robinson), Brick (Wayne Young) and Amber (Genevieve Cortese) all give sincere and energetic performances, especially Bumper Robinson and Genevieve Cortese. I found myself wanting the story to go deeper inside their characters and look farther into the hidden places that they didn’t want to show, much as we saw in DEATH VALLEY’S supposed inspiration DELIVERANCE. It was not to be, and since there was little to truly set it apart, DEATH VALLEY will end up as a footnote in Silver Screen history and that is a shame. It looked good, sounded good, was fairly well acted, but it didn’t move me as much as I wanted it to.

DEATH VALLEY has a small but interesting set of “bonus features”. In addition to an audio commentary with directors/writers David Kebo and Rudi Liden, there is a 3 ½ minute “Making of Death Valley” featurette that shows a few “behind the scenes” clips, mini-synopses/interview segments with cast and crew and continued spectacular photography of the desert setting. There is an 18 minute extended and/or deleted scenes section of fourteen parts and a compilation gag reel that is 7 ½ minutes long. There is a 1 minute theatrical teaser trailer and a selection of Allumination Filmworks trailers, most of which I had already seen and reviewed for this site. While this was not the “mother lode” of extras, as usual it was nice to see a few tidbits thrown the viewers way, and looking inside the minds of the filmmakers and seeing some of their craft is almost always a worthwhile opportunity.

If you have never seen any of the films I have referenced earlier in this review, DEATH VALLEY might be a good foray into the “action-revenge-desert melodrama” subgenre and you might find it an entertaining and appealing flick. I was never bored while watching this film, and after some hard work I even grew to like some of the characters. It was visually attractive and I was even able sit back and appreciate some fine landscape photography that I always feel is a bonus to any film, for it deepens the sense of setting. In the extras, the directors/writers are “outed” as being fairly new to the film business, and after some research, it can be seen that this was their first project together. It would be interesting to see what some time and some experience will do to these young men. This was an intriguing first effort and these gents show some promise. Hopefully, they will get their chance to hone their skills and craft and build a worthy legacy that is as memorable as a spectacular desert sunset.


1 comment:

Saturday Fright Special said...

When I first heard about this movie, I was hoping it was going to be a DVD reissue of the early 80s slasher movie of the same name featuring (if I remember correctly) the kid from Christmas Story. But oh well. I'll check it out anyways.

- Isaac