New to Shudder, the genre mashup follows in the footsteps of many better films.
Death Valley, a new horror film from Matthew Ninaber (known best for playing PG in Psycho Goreman), wants it all. The 93-minute feature hopes to bend horror, thriller, and action—a daring attempt at a balancing act without much of a safety net. Unfortunately, in practice, Ninaber’s picture can’t put two feet into any storyline and fumbles its attempt to juggle its myriad characters, plots, and tonal shifts.
A monster movie with an Alien-esque beast played by Ninaber himself, Death Valley follows special operations soldiers Marshall (Ethan Mitchell) and Beckett (Jeremy Ninaber) as they descend into a secret bunker laboratory to rescue a doctor and secure her research. Wrinkly, gnarling mutants wander the underground lab as the duo try to locate Dr. Chloe (Kristen Kaster) while also fending off a local militia packing high-grade weaponry and a willingness to kill.
Death Valley jumps from genre to genre. It opens with wartime action, jumps to horror, and closes as a supernatural thriller. None of it coheres, and all of it is overly familiar, pulled from better films with stronger premises and larger budgets. Without a clear sense of direction, the film struggles under the weight of these genres, adhering to well-worn dialogue that doesn’t know the meaning of subtlety.
Ninaber marries the real and the mythic, continually returning to a subplot involving the Nephilim—giant, super-strong half-human, half-god/alien/who-knows-whats. Despite the lack of background or information about these beings, Death Valley wants its viewers to take these buried-in-ice monsters as a serious threat. Ninaber half-expects his audience to already know and fear the Nephilim, equating them with the fears of Biblical pasts. The time spent explaining these monsters goes wasted, as they become a dead end among the countless subplots. With the picture a tonal shamble, the Nephilim, the supposed big, bad monsters, become just one of dozens of nits to pick.
Emotional resonance never comes even in the thriller’s most tried moments due to these characters’ bland and shadow-like nature.
Death Valley’s characters are, unfortunately, a shallow bunch—they’re outlines of archetypes long seen in popular culture. The tortured scientist, the soldier with the baby on the way, his wise-cracking best friend, and a tough, Eastern European military man. They’ve danced this dance before. The cast’s performances don’t add much to their thinly drawn characters, but Kaster’s doctor and Ninaber’s monster do stand out. She’s muted, yet fierce, showing controlled defiance in the midst of disaster. He’s following PG with another believable monster, aided by impressive makeup effects.
With Dr. Chloe, and her half-baked involvement with the local militia, Ninaber seemingly attempts to make a larger statement about abuse and confinement. By the time these themes surface in the final act, they become throwaway lines spoken by characters with little to no background. The director focuses on building the mania of this world, not the people inhabiting it. The audience knows more about the monsters than the people fighting them, with each battle lacking a sense of importance or necessity, due to a diminishing relationship to these thinly-drawn silhouettes posing as more complete characters.
Structurally, the location of an underground bunker makes sense. It pushes these characters towards one another, forcing them to work together against common enemies. It’s narrow, confined, with danger lurking around every corner, but Ninaber lacks any spatial awareness. Even the heroes, field operations experts Marshall and Beckett, have no idea where they’re going, and neither do the viewers. Running around this compound without any direction, the viewer cannot tell how close or far these people are to the exits, how close they are to freedom. The stakes of Ninaber’s thriller rarely rise above passable, and giving one’s full attention becomes a chore, rather than a treat.
Though Ninaber’s commitment to his monster and its movie is admirable, there’s just not enough that works in Death Valley to recommend it. It borrows elements from films with surer direction and more reasonable scripts, without buying into its own absurdity. What’s more, it teeters between seriousness and unprompted wise-cracks, unable to pick an attitude towards the story it hopes to tell.
Descend to the underground lab at Death Valley now on Shudder.