DEATH VALLEY Movie Poster | ©2021 Shudder

DEATH VALLEY Movie Poster | ©2021 Shudder

Rating: Not Rated
Stars: Jeremy Ninaber, Ethan Mitchell, Kristen Kaster
Writer: Matthew Ninaber
Director: Matthew Ninaber
Distributor: Shudder
Release Date: December 9, 2021

DEATH VALLEY has an odd title, considering its contents. There’s plenty of death, but we’re not in the Mojave Desert, nor in any sort of valley at all. Our primary locations are a Russian forest, and the underground biolab beneath it.

This aside, DEATH VALLEY is surprisingly well-done. Moments that seem to be plot missteps are actually clues. Despite the clearly low budget, director/writer Matthew Ninaber and his cinematographer, Brent Tremain, establish plausible lighting sources. They make sure that we can see everything we’re supposed to, which is often not the case with even more expensive horror films.

We start with a blood-covered woman (played by Kristen Kaster) and man running down a tunnel as an automated voice announces, in both English and Russian, that there will be a lockdown in sixty seconds.

Another armed man at the tunnel’s exit shoots the running man, knocking him down, then shoots the woman in the leg. The shooter then exits the tunnel. With no way to leave, the woman runs back the way she came.

The woman, whose name we will learn is Chloe, records a video message. “Everyone else is dead. If you want Adam and all of his research, get me out of here.”

We cut to mercenary Jack Beckett (Jeremy Ninaber) video-phoning with his pregnant wife, assuring her this gig pays well, it’s the last one, and he’ll come home. Jack has not yet told his partner, Junior Marshall (Ethan Mitchell), that he’s planning to quit the soldier of fortune life.

The mission commander is Jack’s ex, Rachel (Jacqueline Ninaber), who says there will be two extraction teams. She informs her operatives that there’s a hostile militia on the ground, also seeking to enter the lab, where experiments on the human genome have been conducted.

Ninaber shows his monsters early. The makeup and gore effects are efficient, but the filmmaker wisely doesn’t play these shots like big revelations, but rather rolls them into the storytelling.

This is where DEATH VALLEY distinguishes itself from the pack of shoot-our-way-through-a-lab-full-of-monsters subgenre. The film takes time for not only character moments but also plot development. By the end, we wind up with an unexpectedly sympathetic antagonist, whose motives in another film would make them the hero.

The actors are all proficient, with some of them displaying impressive martial arts moves. The interior locations are also persuasive-looking, courtesy of Canada’s Diefenbunker Cold War Museum and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

DEATH VALLEY isn’t a world-beater (and, not to harp on this, but it should have a less misleading name), but it’s an example of low-budget horror making that succeeds in achieving what it sets out to do.

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