Shudder’s latest premiere, Death Valley, boasts gore-forward creature thrills with an emphasis on tight quarters (Ridley Scott’s ears are burning). Director and screenwriter Matthew Ninaber—notably billed as the hunky actor underneath Psycho Goreman extraterrestrial flesh—once again transforms beneath prosthetics and cosmetics that honor the sacred art of practical monster effects. Confident SFX applications never fall victim to the digitization of demons or thick shadows that hide rushed warehouse imperfections. Still, an inefficient supporting narrative around the film’s prized predator rears an uglier head over time. It’s as repetitive and underwritten as any Resident Evil knockoff can be—might as well be a T-Virus or G-Virus outbreak—with mediocre military diversions that pull us away from the reanimated nightmares at hand.
Matthew’s brother Jeremy Ninaber stars as gun-for-hire Beckett, a soldier with parenthood on the horizon who’s accepted his proclaimed last contract. Beckett’s sex-obsessed partner Marshall (Ethan Mitchell)—quite the introductory banter—shows best friend supportiveness aside from crude humor, which adds a layer of importance to their objective. It’s a simple extraction job, as militia guards patrol some European Cold War bunker with their target inside: Bioengineer Chloe (Kristen Kaster). Sneak in, rescue the asset, haul ass home—what’s there to worry about (he types rhetorically)?
As we glimpse in the film’s opening scene, where Chloe is locked inside the subterranean facility by the mountain of muscle that forms villain Olek (Matt Daciw), armed ranks aren’t Beckett’s only problem. Matthew Ninaber’s genetic hybrid of a creature bears a striking resemblance to both Lickers and Nemesis from the Resident Evil universe, stalking the halls where Chloe now cowers. Death Valley’s introduction isn’t shy about reveals—Chloe confronts Ninaber’s beast as it outreaches curled claws and hisses a snarl towards the trembling woman. A worse movie wouldn’t dare afford audiences such a full-frontal view so early, while a better one might spend less time outside the concrete enclosure as Beckett plays assault rifle heroics.
After Ninaber engages horror fans by unleashing his nightmare, Death Valley trades labyrinthian claustrophobia for Beckett’s mundane black ops gunplay. It’s narratively necessary to eliminate Beckett and Marshall’s reinforcements and strand them inside with Chloe’s coworkers turned inhuman outbreak spreaders—well, the single hellspawn we see in frame per interaction due to production limitations. If only the extended war games didn’t feel like Ninaber’s family and frequent collaborators were dashing around someone’s backyard with fake weapons. There’s no reason to divert attention away from creatures for what seems like almost the entire front half of Death Valley, sans the first sequence, and favor the incomparably dull woodland combat that’s nothing but recycled action movie dialogue and grunts eating bullets.
Ninaber’s strengths don’t involve challenging Saving Private Ryan, Behind Enemy Lines, or Black Hawk Down on a meager budget. Death Valley disappoints most when it’s not a monster movie—which it is, but forgets for too long.
Once horror environments escalate—locked inside with a ferocious creation from icy origins a la The Thing or Captain America—primitive survival terrors announce themselves. Ninaber appears comfortable within his lipless abomination that looks like it’s wrapped by ridgy brain tissue, as cinematographer Brent Tremain captures the mongrel under reddened alarm lights or tussling with Beckett’s band of survivors. It’s not particularly overwhelming since, as mentioned, there’s only ever one threat present at a time because that’s what production capabilities allow. Still, Ninaber leapfrogs many other competing creature features that aren’t as emphatic about practical monster performances. A few infected bites and gunshots round out the expectations of gnarliness that otherwise slather Chloe in sticky, slathered-on blood, and you’ll witness some choice splattery violence, which is where Death Valley collects points. I’m a sucker for actors in suits playing a damn-good supernatural berserker, which is when Ninaber beats his chest.
Unfortunately, Death Valley isn’t memorable as a smash-and-grab, almost Doomlike standoff against undead biters. Matthew Ninaber brings spirit and malice to what’s sold as religious subtext—mythology based on Nephilim pre and post-flood beings—but only as superfluous inserts. There’s nothing narratively unique between Beckett’s one last hurrah before fatherhood, or humankind’s hubris, or the tightly-shirted Eastern European madmen we’ve seen hold innocents at gunpoint eleventy times before. If Death Valley were a videogame, you’d think every character was an NPC. Not precisely the imaginative descent into chaos that’s teased, albeit a showcase for Ninaber’s talents as an imposing scare actor who loses himself on a freakishly feral whim.
Director: Matthew Ninaber
Writer: Matthew Ninaber
Starring: Jeremy Ninaber, Ethan Mitchell, Kristen Kaster
Release Date: December 9, 2021 (Shudder)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread to the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.