Death Falls (1989): Twilight Time

Matty takes a look at a long-forgotten indie drama starring Rip Torn and Roberts Blossom and finds a few things to savour.

Shot in and around Inyo County, California in late summer 1988; bandied about the Cannes market in May ‘89; and finally landing on U.S. video in January ‘97, DEATH FALLS received its greatest exposure following Rip Torn’s passing in 2019, when Jeffrey Combs Tweeted about the “obscure little [movie]” he made with the irascible Texan “way back when”. Combs — who plays the film’s jittery antagonist, Lonnie Hawkes — went on to say that he was “thrilled” to collaborate with the notoriously prickly Torn and signed off by wishing his dearly departed co-star a suitably Shakespearean goodbye. At first glance, Combs’ words were simply a reverential social media eulogy from one trouper to another. However, in a strange sort of way, the Re-Animator (1985) hero’s Tweet is Death Falls in a nutshell. It’s the perfect summation of this seldom-seen indie’s status and distribution history, and encapsulates the themes of time, memory and mortality at the centre of the film’s ramshackle narrative. 

Falsely promoted as a Deliverance (1972)-type survival epic during its Cannes showcase and initial home media releases (tagline: “Why were they running scared?”) Death Falls was eventually saddled with a cheeky and still wholly deceptive “based on a true story” handle for its second U.K. DVD issue in 2007 [1]. Evidently, bargain bin outfit Pegasus Entertainment were trying to align the film with one of its closest conceptual relatives, David Lynch’s achingly perfect The Straight Story (1998), which had then been repressed on disc by VCI/Film 4. Personally, I think Pegasus missed a trick not calling Death Falls ‘a geriatric Thelma & Louise (1991)’ instead. None of those comparisons are completely accurate, mind. While there are certainly elements — preemptive and otherwise — of Boorman, Lynch and Scott’s iron-clad classics — and, even, Stand by Me (1987) and Beaches (1988) — woven throughout, Death Falls almost defies classification given how schizophrenically it flits between comedy, weepie and hicksploitation.

Scripted by John F. Goff and George ‘Buck’ Flower — longtime writing partners and beloved character actors best known for their ‘that guy’ appearances in an innumerable amount of horror and B-movies — Death Falls’ plot finds Torn’s grizzled mustang wrangler, Dub, busting his terminally ill pal, Hals (Roberts Blossom), out of hospital for one last hurrah at the eerie beauty spot of the title. Tracking them across the state and trying to find out what the hell these good ol’ boys are up to is a woman platonically in love with the pair of them (Beverly Garland); an angry Fed convinced there’s something more sinister afoot; an affable sheriff (perennial bit player Kaz Garras, a specialist in lawmen roles); his dim-witted deputy (Dennis Fimple); and a diminutive psychotic redneck Dub owes money to (Combs).     

Lensed with an interesting if never entirely successful naturalistic bent (the film is somewhat technically slipshod), Death Falls is imbued with a shaggy, freewheeling quality that places character at the forefront. Atoning for its tonal inconsistencies and several slack passages, the believable individuals at the heart of Death Falls’ rumination on ageing and friendship are a richly defined bunch brought to life by a capable cast. The performances are a bit portentous, and you always catch Torn and Blossoms acting — but watching such a cavalcade of pros work is a pleasure regardless of their stagey overtures.    

Death Falls serves as the sole directorial credit of June Samson, a script supervisor by trade with some big hitters to her name — The Deer Hunter (1978) and Top Gun (1986) among them. Born in Battersea, London on 3rd March 1930, Samson came to the U.S. in 1953 and honed her craft on TV series Bonanza before ascending to the Hollywood big leagues. She died on 3rd November 2007 at the age of seventy-seven due to complications from a fall — a particularly cruel irony considering…

USA ● 1989 ● Drama ● 83mins

Rip Torn, Roberts Blossom, Beverly Garland, Jeffrey Combs ● Dir. June Samson ● Wri. John F. Goff & George ‘Buck’ Flower

[1] Death Falls’ first British DVD — and, indeed, its first British release outright — came courtesy of Digital Video Dreams in March 2003.

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