By: Steph Cannon
Monster movies are one of the most prevalent subgenres in horror, reigning supreme for decades. If you want to make a film centered around a deadly creature stalking and taking people out, you’ve got to find ways to make it conspicuous enough to stand out. Shudder’s DEATH VALLEY, written and directed by Matthew Ninaber, makes a lofty stab at this objective with a movie that’s part horror, part military action spectacle.
The opening minutes are exciting and promising; we see bioengineer Chloe (Kristen Kaster) running for her life, literally, through a dark underground lab, chased by something terrifying we can’t yet see. The only other human inhabitant currently there manages to escape without her, and the facility goes into lockdown, leaving her no choice, but to send a distress signal. Answering that call is a group of mercenaries, led by typical good guy Beckett (Jeremy Ninaber), and the wise-cracking Marshall (Ethan Mitchell).
It’s a simple grab and go mission; they’ll be airlifted to the Eastern European forest where the facility is, storm the lab, fight off whatever threat is inside, and rescue the girl. At one point, there’s even a comment made on how “easy” this operation should be. But, of course, it’s far from that. There’s also a group of opposing local militia who have surrounded the area, apparently after whatever is inside the bunker.
Once all of this has been established, we spend a good amount of time in the forest watching a firefight between Beckett, Marshall, and the rest of their squad, versus the heavily-armed militia. The action during this combat scene is well-produced and impressive given their budget, but does little to make the film feel like true horror up until this point. Eventually, though, our band of mercenaries make it inside, and that’s when it finally begins to feel like a scary movie.
Once they locate Chloe, there’s enough exposition given for the viewer to understand what’s going on in the lab, and why they all need to get the heck out of there. There’s a blind, grotesque-looking humanoid creature that’s the result of science experiments gone wrong, who is wreaking havoc and killing everyone off. Now, the group must navigate through the dimly-lit facility, fight off the monster, and escape through a tunnel, undetected by the opposing force that still awaits outside.
From here, the movie combines virtually every known trope from Alien and The Thing, which shouldn’t be too surprising, given the premise. Death Valley does give us enough insight into the characters and their personalities that we actually care about what happens, and are rooting for them. Unfortunately, that’s overshadowed by the fact that it suffers under the weight of its own heavy plot. This is a movie that seems to not fully know what it wants to be; it’s part creature feature, part military action flick, and part sci-fi. Its attempts to combine all of these into one cohesive storyline feels muddled and forced, and it could have benefitted from keeping it a simple monster movie without all the extraneous “bad guys with guns” sequences.
The remainder of the film goes a rather bleak direction, but there’s enough action and gore to satisfy those looking for horrific eye candy. The effects on the monster itself are also well done, and you can’t help but feel its gross sliminess as it goes after our group of heroes. All in all, it’s a decent alternative for those looking to escape the onslaught of joyful and brightly lit Holiday movies that are currently around every corner.
DEATH VALLEY is streaming on Shudder.