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Shudder Secrets: Death Valley: A Gory Creature Feature with Plenty of Gunfire

If you ever wanted an action movie combined with a gory creature feature, then Death Valley may be your jam. There are explosions, lots of gunfire, and a gnarly-looking ancient monster. At times, this is a movie that feels all over the place in terms of plot, but it certainly moves at a quick pace and has great effects. It also has one memorable creature, thanks to writer/director’s Matthew Ninaber performance as the monster. Ninaber also played Psycho Goreman in PG: Psycho Goreman, one of Shudder’s most entertaining releases of 2021.

At times, Death Valley feels like a mind-numbing action movie with too many kabooms and fireworks, especially in the first act. However, some of the biblical references make for a unique storyline (even if unrealized) and stellar effects. It’s an entertaining stream with plenty of blood, guts, and gore.

The Mission

The film has two male leads, essentially, buds who are friends until the end. Jeremy Ninaber plays Beckett, a do-gooder type whose wife, Jess (Melissa Joy Boerger), is pregnant. Beckett’s job is dangerous. He’s a mercenary, and Jess pleads with him to give up that career, so he doesn’t end up dead before their kid is born. Yet, Beckett dreams of a better life for his future family. He says with the money from the various mercenary jobs, he can move them to a bigger house. You can’t blame a guy for dreaming big, right? You also can’t blame Jess for wanting her husband to pick a less dangerous career, especially one that doesn’t involve monsters.

Opposite Beckett is Marshall (Ethan Mitchell), a cocksure bro-type quick with a gun. At first, he’s like a frat boy, making comments that Jess’ kid is really his. He brags about sexual exploits constantly. I don’t’ think he says a single positive thing about any woman in the first act, other than how he’d use them sexually.  He and Beckett are tasked with saving a scientist, Chloe (Kristen Kaster), who’s trapped in an old Cold War bunker. The creature slaughtered the rest of her team. Of course, Beckett, Marshall, and the rest of the rescue squad don’t know that at first.

Marshall just wants to save her so she falls in love with him and mothers his children. Yep, that’s the type of bro sleeze he oozes initially. To be fair, however, he does undergo an endearing change and doesn’t remain a flat character by the last act. To complicate matters, a Russian goon, Olek (Matt Daciw), wants to get into the bunker first. He wants the research that Chloe possesses so he can make a weapon. This result is one long-winded action scene within the first 20 minutes between Olek and his men and team good guys.

One of the overall highlights here is the back and forth between Beckett and Marshall. Their friendship is the most developed relationship in the film, and Ninaber and Mitchell play off of each other quite well. This is especially true once they’re trapped in the bunker together, desperate for a way out, chased by Olek’s men and a monster. In fact, the more danger they face, the more Mitchell’s character evolves.

The Book of Enuch, Demons, and Nephilim

Once they find the bunker and encounter the monster, Beckett and Marshall have a conversation that relates to the Book of Enuch. Essentially, what they discuss relates to Noah, the flood, fallen angels, and demons. It’s a lot to unpack, and one of the film’s real shortcomings is that it doesn’t explore this idea fully enough. It’s just sort of shoehorned in there.

The Book of Enuch is an ancient Hebrew apocalyptic text. It contains material on the origins of demons and Nephilim. Since the monster was apparently found trapped in the ice (hello references to The Thing), Beckett surmises that they may be Nephilim. I guess someone paid attention during their Sunday school lessons. In short, Nephilim was the offspring of the “sons of God,” or fallen angels, who raped daughters of human men. They’re a pure product of evil and sin, essentially. The Book of Genesis references the giants, too.

Beckett even mentions the flood and Noah’s ark. In his version of the story, God cleansed the earth to rid it of the Nephilim. Again, this is a pretty cool use of Biblical stories to explain the hideous creature discovered in deep, icy depths. However, the plot becomes especially convoluted when Chloe’s backstory is spotlighted. It becomes difficult to keep track of the actual origins of the creature and what it may want. The monster isn’t what you think it is, essentially, though the eventual reveal only overly complicates what’s essentially a creature feature with action sequences.

Courtesy of Shudder

Throwbacks to Carpenter’s The Thing

Any creature feature with solid special effects will no doubt be compared to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Death Valley has some cool echoes of that classic. The fact the creature was discovered in ice is perhaps the biggest. But The Thing is very much a movie about men and how they react in a dire situation, trapped and isolated. The film’s ending is bleak, but that’s not necessarily true of Death Valley. At the very least, Beckett and Marshall show some real love for each other, especially within the last act. Their friendship is the only real light in the darkness. Instead of turning on each other, they try to help each other survive.

Further, there are some laudable uses of a flamethrower to fend off the creature throughout Death Valley. Again, I couldn’t help but think of The Thing and MacReady’s use of such a weapon more than once. In fact, it’s used in two of the film’s most iconic scenes, the creepy-crawly head segment, and the blood test. Why their bunker had so many flamethrowers readily available always made me wonder. The flamethrower becomes the weapon of choice, especially in Marshall and Beckett’s direst moment.

Is Death Valley Worth a Visit?

The first act of Death Valley made me want to turn it off. Marshall is such a deplorable character, constantly objectifying women that I couldn’t stand his outsized screen time. Meanwhile, the early action sequences made me wonder how I’d get through 90 minutes. But when there’s less gunfire, once the men find the bunker and meet Chloe, we discover a slightly less bombastic film that has some interesting characters at its core and a fantastic creature.

As much as I wanted to see the creature, I also wanted to see how these three characters, Beckett and Marshall especially, interacted with each other and how they’d get out alive. I liked them on screen together. There’s some decent character development, primarily of Marshall, though I really wish Chloe’s arc and origins didn’t become so confusing. This is another one of the film’s major flaws.

Ultimately, though, this is a creature feature that places character development behind the rad special effects and the action scenes. In fact, some of the side plots, especially involving Olek, really detract from the movie’s fun. There are moments when it wants to be serious, but it never quite works. The origin stuff is too undercooked. The storyline wanders into too many nonsensical places. If it leaned a little more into the absurdity, like Psycho Goreman, it probably would have been a stronger film. In fact, I wanted more of that humor. I didn’t even need some wild proposal that the creature is maybe, just maybe, some ancient offspring of a fallen angel and a human. Overall, however, if special effects and monsters are your draws to horror, then Death Valley is worth a watch.

Death Valley comes to Shudder on December 9. For more on the streaming service’s new and exclusive content, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column.