Death Valley is an underwhelming but mostly inoffensive bit of lightweight genre work, delivering a few moments and overcoming obvious budget limitations.
As has been periodically mentioned here before at InRO, being a diehard genre aficionado entails quite a bit of sifting through dreck to find the occasional diamond. To be clear, even grading on the most generous of curves, Death Valley isn’t one of those diamonds. Despite some surprisingly adequate production values, it’s rife with clichés and bad acting, and borrows so liberally from both the Resident Evil and Doom game franchises that it’s a wonder no one has sued writer/director Matthew Ninaber. And yet. And yet, there are just enough simple pleasures here — including hand-crafted practical effects and a generous amount of gooey kills — to make this a painless watch. Call it post-Paul W.S. Anderson Stockholm Syndrome.
For all practical purposes, Death Valley is really just a calling card film, or a fan film writ large. It’s also a family affair — Ninaber has cast his brother, Jeremy Ninaber, as tough mercenary Beckett, who, along with a squad of heavily armed men, has been tasked with rescuing a scientist from an underground bunker. Seems her genetic experiments have gone horribly awry, and there’s a killer something running amok and infecting anyone it touches. The Ninaber name pops up all over the credits — Matthew is also the film’s editor, producer, and performs inside the monster suit, while family members are listed as extras, production managers, on-set photographers, and even as slate operator — and so criticizing it enthusiastically feels kind of like taking a shot at someone’s home movies. But I digress; after running into some Russian-sounding militia men who are also trying to enter the compound, Beckett and best-bud Marshall (Ethan Mitchell) infiltrate the labs and find their scientist. She’s Chloe (Kristen Kaster), and she holds all the facility’s secret research. Chloe is determined to make it out alive, but she knows more than she’s letting on about the origins of this creature. And so while the trio tries to make their way back above ground, they must also confront the mystery of what, or who, this monster is. Or something like that. The Russian militia guys also eventually find their way inside, adding more bodies to the meat grinder, as every so often a creature pops up on screen to bite, stab, or otherwise eviscerate someone.
The plot gets increasingly garbled while the characters go through their familiar paces, but at least the cinematography is pretty impressive, courtesy of newcomer Brent Tremain. If you’ve seen people evading monsters while running down dark, narrow corridors, this isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it is moody and atmospheric, with deftly placed splashes of glowing computer screens and neon lighting; one particularly nice sequence finds Marshall hiding next to a corpse inside a cramped morgue, bathed in eerie blue light. Unfortunately for him, nothing here stays dead for long. Jeremy, meanwhile, doesn’t make much of an impression in the lead role, and every line reading sounds like it needed a few more takes to work out the awkward kinks (Beckett and Marshall’s attempts at bro-banter are alarmingly bad). But for all its faults, Death Valley is at least as watchable as Andrzej Bartkowiak’s 2005 adaptation of Doom, even at 1/100th the budget. That’s not to oversell this effort, but hey — that’s an accomplishment of sorts.
You can currently stream Matthew Ninaber’s Death Valley on Shudder.