Color, 1988, 88 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by Robert C. Hughe
Starring John Kerry, Mark Mears, Karen Russell, Lesa Lee, William Smith, Eddie D., Mark Caso, Cameron Mitchell
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
A slasher movie in spirit if not exactly execution, Memorial Valley Massacre is frequently confounding oddity that lurked on VHS shelves throughout the '90s without anyone ever seeming to actually rent it or talk about it. However, those lucky few willing to take a risk were rewarded with an absurd slice of entertainment that may be low on scares but is certainly high on junky entertainment value.
Just in time for Memorial Day weekend, the Memorial Valley Campground is having a very rocky start to its grand opening with obstacles including picnic-invading poisonous snakes, a dead dog in the water supply, and the mysterious death of one of its workers. However, ranger and master tracker George Webster (Kerry), whose son was presumably killed in the area two decades before during a botched kidnapping attempt, is determined to soldier on. He's aided by David (Mears), the son of bullish primary company owner Allen Sangster (Mitchell, in a glorified cameo appearance) and a forest devotee eager to preserve the natural balance of the region. The campers who decide to stick around turn out to be a colorful bunch including partying teens, a gravelly-voiced William Smith, and an ill-fated dirt biker who falls afoul of a primal young man (Caso) dressed up in Neanderthal skins who lives in a nearby cave. As night falls, the campground soon becomes the site for a rising body count.
Originally titled Memorial Day and circulated in Europe as Valley of Death, this film is loaded with exaggerated characters and ridiculous dialogue that somehow manages to pale in comparison to the killer himself, a wig-clad primitive whose early stick attack against a toppled dirt bike sets the tone for what's to come. The fact that the film goes out of its way to maintain sympathy for him is actually a unique touch (as is the resolution that also veers away from the norm in a few ways), with the murders explained as the handiwork of someone who takes self-defense a little too far and punishes those who treat nature with disrespect. Along the way you get the usual camper distractions including tent hook ups and scary stories, with Kerry's tracking abilities played up so much you just know they have to come in handy during the big finale. Adding to the eccentricity is a Casio-heavy score by jazz and theater composer Jed Feuer, which often sounds like Richard Band after way too much caffeine. It's truly a singular experience unlike any other.
After its VHS run from Nelson Entertainment and no bona fide theatrical release, this film became a frequent choice of gray market labels with the tape transferred over badly for a few multi-film packs and dodgy standalone editions. As it turns out, this one isn't public domain at all but actually the property of MGM, with the 35mm original negative (featuring the Memorial Day title on the actual credits) used for a fresh 4K scan for the 2020 Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome. (Strangely, the credit block on the back of the disc calls this film Valley of Death, so you get all three titles represented on here somewhere!) The quality here is insanely good, especially if you're familiar with how dreary this one used to look; it looks immaculate here and so fresh it could have been shot yesterday. The DTS-HD MA English mono track also sounds excellent, at least as much as the original mix will allow, and comes with optional English SDH subtitles. In the great featurette "Welcome to Memorial Valley" (13m43s), director Robert C. Hughes talks about the film's use of the feral child concept, the game plan of distributor Motion Picture Corporation of America, the Roger Corman connection thanks to his excellent and underrated prior film Hunter's Blood, the script overhaul that took place when he came aboard, the wild story behind Caso and his gymnastics and stunt careers, and the inconvenience of shooting primarily outside and trying to blow up a mobile home. Then in "Ranger Danger" (10m7s), Kerry explains how he went into acting after his service in the Marines, drew on a certain John Wayne film for inspiration here, and the enthusiastic DIY spirit of the production. A short gallery (40s) is also included, highlighted by some of the original paintings used for the promotional artwork.
Reviewed on October 2, 2020