Death Valley is one of those films that grabbed me with its trailer, investing a decent amount of its budget on practical monster effects, despite some obvious flaws thanks to it seeming to wear its influences on its sleeve. It won’t win any awards for originality, but it absolutely gets points for being a half decent way to spend an hour and a half.
It begins with a man and a woman, later identified as Doctor Chloe (Kristen Kaster), desperately running through a dark facility as an ominous computer voice counts down. When the woman fails to escape and a lock-down comes into place, she does the only thing she can: she makes a call for help. She asks for someone to come and save her, revealing that whatever information the lab was working on will be lost in twenty four hours time – giving the rest of the movie a sense of urgency.
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After this we cut to two mercenaries, Beckett (Jeremy Ninaber) and Marshall (Ethan Mitchell), who have been employed as part of a team to try and enter the lab and rescue Doctor Chloe and her research. We get some hints of drama to come between the two of them, as this is Beckett’s last mission before he retires to become a father – a fact that his best friend Marshall knows nothing about yet. The two of them are sent to join the rest of their squad in the search for a way into the facility, having to dodge the heavily armed militia in the area who are also looking for a way in. Whilst the men are facing dangers from the militia, they’re unaware of what’s waiting for them inside the facility: a deadly creature with the ability to kill them all.
Death Valley feels like a Resident Evil knock-off. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. There’s a remote lab where dangerous experiments have been taking place. Something went wrong and monsters are on the loose. A specialist team is being sent in to rescue people. And the monster design looks like a mix of the Lickers and Nemesis.
Whilst these obvious parallels might put some people off I actually found them to be quite delightful. The Resident Evil franchise has been around for almost thirty years, so of course it will have had an influence on people in creative fields during that time. If anything, I think it’s wonderful when creators come along and play around with the themes and ideas from franchises they love and put creative new spins on it. The new spin for this film being the origins of these creatures.
The creature design really is a highlight of the movie, and I loved the fact that the creators chose to take a practical approach to it rather than going digital. Thanks to this, the monsters feel a lot more real than some other smaller budget creature features that chose to go the CGI route. The monsters have a physical presence and weight to them that digital rarely gives you. Plus, it’s fun to discover that the suit actor is none other than the film’s writer and director, Matthew Ninaber. I can’t think of too many director cameos where they play the creature.
Sadly, where the film feels like it’s lacking is really in the writing. Despite having some moments early on that seem to set up a clear difference between the two leads, they never feel very distinct from thereon, and become almost interchangeable. There are times where the characters do things that seem contradictory to things they’ve said and done before, and it feels as if they only exist scene to scene, doing whatever the story dictates, rather than being fully fleshed out characters.
The film also feels rather small in scale, and whilst this isn’t always a bad thing in horror movies where you want a tight, confined environment to help with the sense of terror, it doesn’t always work here. Characters rarely have any time on screen together, and I think the most we ever see in a single scene is four characters. Despite the heroes of the piece having several members of their team, they are never shown together, only in pairs or trios. It makes the film feel small, as if it didn’t have the budget for scenes involving groups.
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Despite these flaws though, Death Valley is decent enough fun. It probably won’t end up on many top horror lists, as pretty much everything done in this film has been done better elsewhere, but it tried. It took a chance to make something entertaining and it succeeded for the most part. If you’re looking for something to scratch that Resident Evil itch, this film will certainly do that.
Death Valley is premieres on Shudder on 9th December.