Friday, July 17, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009)

Before getting to the specifics of My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009), let me get something important out of the way first: I enjoy and admire slasher films.

For one thing, I legitimately enjoy experiencing (and indeed, cataloguing...) the myriad twists in the sub-genre's excessively rigid, repetitive format. Because slasher movies tend to be so predictable (almost down to the minute), feature stock characters (the final girl, the Cassandra Figure, the jock, the bitch, the black friend...) and off-the-shelf situations (the cat-jump, the car-won't-start, the twist ending...), a clever filmmaker can inject real surprises -- not to mention shock -- with just a modicum of ingenuity. A slight shuffling of the deck can do wonders.

Just recall for a moment the final revelation of the original Sleepaway Camp (1983), if you need an evidence of a slasher movie curve ball that scales the heights of mad genius.

In addition, I appreciate the traditional, moralistic, thematic undercurrent of most slasher films (vice precedes slice-and-dice...). Whether we admit it or not, we're all judgmental of our fellow man under the skin, and we enjoy seeing the wicked punished and the good...survive.

I have even come to understand why we need slashers in our leisurely, all-too-routine lives. In this buttoned-down, contemporary society of plenty -- in which we don't even procure our own food -- the challenge of the celluloid, mythical super-predator is nearly impossible to resist.

Often connected explicitly with Mother Nature Herself, The Bogeymen Slashers (Jason, Michael, Freddy, Jason, Ghost Face, Harry Warden, etc.) boast powers and capabilities beyond those of mere mortals. Endowed with superior strength, resilient bodies, and the unerring (though also unexplained...) capacity to appear and disappear almost at will, always selecting the right victim at the right time in the process, the Masked Slasher is the superior human predator we don't (thankfully...) have in our real lives.

And in facing down a slasher -- even a mythical one in a scary movie -- audiences get to run the equivalent of a survival gauntlet; matching their wits and skills against the slasher's. Don't run down that hall! Don't fall for that red herring! Get out of the car! Call the police!

The best slasher films are even deeper. Is Michael Myers the bogeyman? Or a developmentally-arrested "child" who doesn't realize the real-life implications of his trick-or-treat games? Or could he be the physical embodiment of Laurie Strode's frustrated id? How about a Druidic avenger protecting his tribe by destroying selected members of said tribe on the eve of Samhain? John Carpenter's Halloween is open to all such interpretations (except, really, that last one...). But perhaps that fact is off message in this review. A good slasher film need not be great art. It just needs to scare us, surprise us, and feature a few ingenious curve balls in that road map of the paradigm.

I don't mean to cover territory that I've vetted here before (particularly in my review of Friday the 13th) but I believe it important to establish up front that I wasn't seeking high art or deep social meaning in My Bloody Valentine 3-D. I'm not a kill joy, a grouch, or a fool. What I sought, simply, was a good time being scared. A few jumps here. A few jolts there. You know...a cheap date for the discerning slasher fan.


But My Bloody Valentine 3-D never connects even on that simple, humble basis. I never thought I would actually have to write this, but all movies (yes, even slashers) must accomplish something basic if they wish to be successful in the slightest. They must forge a sense of verisimilitude; a surface plausibility that indicates the events of the film are actually occurring or actually could occur. There has to be enough "kitchen sink reality" in the film's set-up and execution so that our imaginations are successfully engaged for all the ensuing craziness. Start with the real, and then, once we believe, tread into the unreal or the super-real.

Most people forget it, but the original Friday the 13th film in 1980 featured this quality in spades. Cunningham's film did a more-than-credible job of setting up the environs of Camp Crystal Lake and the surrounding town. After the prologue, the film opened with shots of a babbling, idyllic brook, and a few views of the historic "Americana" architecture of the local town. The idea was that this was a "real" place where the seed of horror had unexpectedly grown. The characters -- though undeniably stock in nature -- boasted a surface plausibility. In their hair-styles. In their wardrobe. In their dispositions and demeanor. They look like they belonged in the world the filmmakers were striving to create. They were recognizable to audiences as people we might meet on the street, not collagen-lipped, eye-brow-plucked products of Hollywood.

This was even more true in the original My Bloody Valentine (1981), an ultra-naturalistic slasher film shot in Canada and involving blue collar miners in the town of Valentine's Bluff.

Off the top of my head, I couldn't tell you the name of a single actor featured in that old film, but I can tell you that every character looked as though he or she belonged in that story. The actors were well-cast and believable in their roles. They didn't draw attention to themselves as "actors" but seemed, rather like regular people living in a regular mining town...and being forced to reckon with extraordinary things.

The director of the original My Bloody Valentine, George Mihalka, was also skilled enough to realize that the film's central location -- the mine -- was an important character in the drama. He focused the film's attention, at points, on the rickety old rail car utilized to travel down a long, dark tunnel into darkness. He provided subjective, point-of-view shots of the cave walls racing by during the subterranean sojourn and descent into hell, as if we ourselves were riding down to the bottom of the mine. He established a geography for the lower levels of the dark mine, and then took that geography away from us by -- in a terrifying moment -- having the killer destroy the string of light-bulbs illuminating the cave. Along with the Final Girl, we had lost our bearings...and were scared.

So along comes this glitzy, superficial remake of My Bloody Valentine, and it simply can't be bothered to do any of the basic creative work I've described above. It's a gaudy, infantile coloring book, not a real movie. The actors (including Kerr Smith and Jensen Ackles) are glamorous, beautiful, perfectly-coiffed, and never appear smudged, dirty or even significantly discomforted. The women all look like professional strippers. Not a single character in this film appears as though he or she has ever set foot in a mine...anywhere. Heck, they probably don't even know that West Virginia is a state in the Union. And even though the movie spans ten years, the actors don't age in the slightest, except for facial hair.

Worse, in this remake, the mine generates not an iota of fear. No terror. No claustrophobia. Not even a basic fear of the dark. The mine might as well be an amusement park funhouse. The only "mining" director Lussier does is for imagery. He cribs the falling miner suits, broken light-bulbs and a washing-machine scene from the original 1981 film. But you know what? In every single case, those once potent images have lost their original power because the underlying world of the characters -- the very thread that connects the movie together -- is so faulty.

The killer himself -- a miner in mask and armed with pick-axe -- appears in the film's first scene with such little fanfare or build-up that at first you might assume you are watching a parody of My Bloody Valentine. A character stumbles into a massacre in the mine, sees the killer, and we're off to the races without the slightest nod to creating an atmosphere or a mood. The movie gets in some great gory kills, but they come at you so fast that they don't register as anything but side-show absurdities.

Then come the 3D effects. I cannot judge how effectively they worked in the theaters (and apparently, they were quite wonderful...), but in the 2d format -- where My Bloody Valentine will exist from now on -- they stink. They are cartoony and seem to exist in their own computer animated world. 3-D has been and always will be a gimmick, and the 3-D staging and execution here is novel and creative enough, I suppose. But after you get over the thrill that - wow, things are coming towards me! -- what's left? After novelty...what? In 2D, the effects only call attention to themselves, and in terms of a horror movie, that's never a good thing. The effects should blend seamlessly with the rest of the filmmaker's world so that we can believe what we're seeing.

The makers of My Bloody Valentine have made their movie with real zeal, but virtually all their considerable energy has been devoted to making it an amusement park ride rather than a movie with a coherent narrative. I've rarely seen a movie, in fact, that so egregiously failed to establish its basic sense of reality.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy some individual moments in the film. By God, there's Tom Atkins (The Fog, Halloween III, Night of the Creeps...) back in action! And I would by lying if I said the film's final twist didn't surprise me in the half-second before I realized it was a cheat on the level of High Tension's. But even writing about these things, I feel as though I'm discussing a roller-coaster ride, not a movie. Didn't you like that last loop? Wasn't the third dip like, totaqlly amazing? Despite such pluses, I never believed in the characters, the town, the violence...or the world of My Bloody Valentine in the slightest. And so it never scared me. I don't think I ever even jumped, either. Bummer.

Seems to me that a good slasher film would somehow combine the visual acumen and distinctive, rich look of Nispel's dull-as-dishwater Friday the 13th remake (also 2009) with the visceral zeal and high-energy impact of Lussier's flamboyant circus attraction, My Bloody Valentine. Then we would have a slasher movie we could believe in.

The tag-line for the new My Bloody Valentine is "get your heart broken." Mission accomplished, movie. Mission accomplished. It's not that the makers of the film didn't live up to the original film, it's that they toiled so hard simply to create...a Universal Studios attraction.

Coming at ya...nothing interesting whatsoever.

3 comments:

  1. John -

    In light of this review and your review of the Friday the 13th remake, I can't help thinking that target audience expectations (not to mention sense of "reality") may have profoundly changed since the slasher movies of the early 1980s.

    Do you think that contemporary teenage viewers are as disappointed with these remakes as you are? For better or worse, maybe they find the remake characters to be more realistic than the characters in the original films (if only because they've absorbed so much "reality TV" that the professional strippers seem real enough)? If so, then they face no such emotional barrier.

    As with the F13 remake, I enjoyed the Valentine remake for what it was. Only one scene (in the supermarket) actually generated suspense, but I thought the OTT gore and the 3-D gimmickry were good not-so-clean fun. I still prefer the original film, but I find it hard to hate the remake...
    Maybe I've also absorbed too much reality TV.

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  2. Hey Joe,

    God, I hope that isn't the case! :)

    And I know plenty of young people ("the target audience?") who saw the Friday the 13th remake and shared my opinion of it.

    Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine are two bad movies, pure and simple.

    There are good (and yes, great...) horror movies being made today too, ones that evidence verisimilitude, create identifiable characters, and build suspense.

    You could look at the 2003 Chainsaw remake by Nispel; the Dawn of the Dead remake in 04, 28 Days Later, The Ring (2002), The Descent (2006), Cloverfield, The Ruins, and on and on.

    No...I think these 2 recent slasher movies are just sub-par...and made money based on branding (Friday the 13th) and gimmickry (My Bloody Valentine).

    Also, I am completely open to the possibility that they work better as audience participation movies than on DVD...without the distraction, humor and energy of an in-house audience. Most horror movies do work that way.

    But again, take that communal aspect out (like the 3D) and what you're left with is...

    ...cardboard.

    best,
    JKM

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  3. You write:

    "Off the top of my head, I couldn't tell you the name of a single actor featured in that old film, but I can tell you that every character looked as though he or she belonged in that story. The actors were well-cast and believable in their roles. They didn't draw attention to themselves as "actors" but seemed, rather like regular people living in a regular mining town...and being forced to reckon with extraordinary things."

    Well said! And THAT, my friend, is why the original is so much better and still stands the test time. It is also what makes me dread most remakes (I fear for the upcoming re-do of THE CRAZIES) of classic horror films: cast some perfectly coiffed WB television hotties of the moment and drop them into a rollercoaster meat grinder without paying attention to even a modicum of character development or the establishing of atmosphere.

    I don't think I disliked the MY BLOODY VALENTINE remake as much as you did. I was sufficiently entertained but it was the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy: sweet tasting but instantly forgettable.

    One person I did like (actually, It thought Jaime King was good in it) in it was Kerr Smith who I was so sure I had pegged until the switcheroo at the end. He's become something of a genre vet over the years and was really good in a nasty little horror film THE FORSAKEN, which would make a good half of a double bill with NEAR DARK.

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