I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Death Valley. On the one hand writer/director Matthew Ninaber also wrote and directed the underwhelming Transference and Extraction Day. On the other hand, he was the guy inside the suit of the titular creature in one of my favorite films of the year, Psycho Goreman. So he should know a thing or two about making a practical monster movie, right?
Death Valley opens, not in the California desert as you might expect, somewhere in Eastern Europe as an unknown man flees an underground research facility going into lockdown. This leaves Dr. Chloe (Kristen Kaster) trapped inside. She sends out a distress call and grabs a fire axe to deal with whatever it is that we hear in the darkness.
Answering her distress call is a team of Canadian mercenaries including Marshall (Ethan Mitchell, Eli Roth Presents: A Ghost Ruined My Life), Beckett (Jeremy Ninaber, Forest Fairies) and Moses (Justin Moses, The Friday Night Death Slot). Unfortunately for them, a large, well-equipped militia led by Olek (Matt Daciw), the man we saw in the prologue, is also looking to get whatever is in the bunker.
Despite being hyped on Ninaber’s connection to Psycho Goreman, Death Valley actually has much more in common with Resident Evil or going back a bit further, films like The Terror Within and Creepazoids. In fact, given when this is coming out I’m surprised they didn’t try to play off the Resident Evil reboot as well. Not that that’s a bad thing, I spent many happy hours watching those films and ones like them back in the day. Just don’t expect any of the outrageous splatstick the comparisons to Psycho Goreman may lead you to expect.
In fact, the first half-hour of Death Valley is mostly a video game-influenced action film as our heroes are forced to deal with the opposing militia. It’s not badly done for a low-budget film shot under COVID restricts and serves to whittle the team down to Marshall and Beckett while showing us just how dangerous the film’s human villains are.
Once they get into the facility Death Valley becomes a three-way battle as both sides have to compete with the creature, referred to as Adam (Matthew Ninaber). Audrey Barrett, whose credits also include Psycho Goreman as well as Leprechaun Returns and The Boys, came up with an effective look for the beast who is blind and hunts by sound. Granted that, and the eyeless appearance, are starting to become a bit overused, it’s time to come up with a new mutation.
While not quite as gory as I was hoping, Death Valley does shed its share of blood and keep the pace fairly fast. We’ve seen this basic plot before but Ninaber does manage to work in a few twists as well. It also manages to fit in a reference to The Nephilim, but as in Bigfoot: The Conspiracy, it’s quickly dropped and nothing is done with it. Which is too bad because that’s a plotline with some potential that’s waiting to be tapped into.
Death Valley is certainly a step up from Transference, and Ninaber certainly seems to have a feel for monster movies. I do wish he’d managed to make the feeling of being trapped underground come through a bit more, the base should have been a more claustrophobic and menacing setting. He’s currently developing another monster movie, let’s hope he can continue to up his game with it.
Despite that, Death Valley is an enjoyable bit of monster mayhem and a great alternative to all the sickly sweet Christmas movies popping up everywhere. Shudder will release Death Valley in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand on December 9th.