14 February 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: DATING IS MURDER

The Year of Blood continues with a tribute to St. Valentine's Day. Watch it with someone you'd love... to kill!

There is something disreputably satisfying about a movie like 2001's Valentine, which announces everything about itself in the first shot, basically: it's 1988, and dweeby little Jeremy Melton (Joel Palmer) is at a sixth-grade dance, asking girls to join him out on the floor, to which they respond with unbridled disgust. And so the film is less than 50 seconds old, and that includes the studio leader, before we've figured out the whole rest of the plot: Jeremy is so traumatised by this event that he has to be institutionalised, and at some point in the future - in 2001, say - he will come back to wreak vengeance on the girls who sneered at him, in creatively violent ways. And this is exactly what happens.

Admittedly, you'd probably need to know in advance that Valentine was a horror movie, but I strongly doubt that very many people would wander into it accidentally, although it is fun to close your eyes and imagine that some Katherine Heigl completist might pick it up and assume it's Valentine's Day. Unfortunately, it is not nearly that horrifying: no Ashton Kutcher. At any rate, the film obligingly starts off with nasty, tense strings that could pretty much only show up in a horror picture, so it remains unlikely that anybody would make it as far as the one-minute mark without knowing exactly what we're in for, down to a fairly precise degree if they have enough horror movie savvy to guess that e.g. the girls are going to die in the order that they shoot Jeremy down (I didn't pick up on that forever, largely because I missed a line of dialogue establishing the first girl's name. The opening comes pretty fast, and it's easy to end up behind if you're not on your toes). Christ, we can even figure out who the Final Girl is going to be, before we even see any of the lead actresses: when a certain Kate (Brittany Mayers) rather gently lets Jeremy down with a half-committed promise of "maybe later", she might as well have "MAKES IT TO THE END ALIVE" flashing above her head in neon.

So, yes, Valentine: a singularly direct and unchallenging example of the latter-day slasher film, made to a template that was starting to show its age every bit of 20 years before the movie premiered. Come here looking for suprises, and you will be supremely disappointed. Or will you, I wonder? Truth be told, I was surprised. Take another peak at that release date: 2 February, 2001. Plus it stars Denise Richards and David Boreanaz along with Heigl. I beg you, does this look like anything other than one of those terrible post-Scream teenybopper slashers, with a heavily ironic sense of its own genre, a plot that's more soap opera than And Then There Were None, C-listers killed in reverse-order of the popularity of whatever WB show got them into the national spotlight, a dumbass rock soundtrack, and a sanitised, teen-friendly approach horror?

Because it's not. Except for the soap opera bit; but otherwise, Valentine is actually quite refreshingly old-school in its intentions and execution - tame for an R-rated movie in 2001, but so were plenty of 1980s slashers, in turn. Now, the important thing to notice here is that being old-school is not at all the same as being good: no, Valentine is in fact pretty lousy, though not any more so than the form can withstand. But it is lousy in a simple and inoffensive way, whereas something like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is lousy in a way that stabs holes in your face. And yes, that is where we as a horror movie culture were in 2001: "this movie is not good, but it doesn't go out of its way to piss me off" qualifies as praise.

The plot is- but didn't you notice, I already detailed the plot? "Jeremy comes back to wreak vengeance on the girls who sneered at him, in creatively violent ways". It was, like, three paragraphs ago. Okay fine: first, we catch up with Shelley (Heigl), who is now in med school, and busily slicing open her first cadaver, alone at night, the day before her exam. Sure, okay, I don't know from med school. About 15 false scares stand between us and the moment that, obviously, the cadaver breathes, because of course it is not the cadaver at all, but Jeremy Melton, ready to exact his revenge, which he does after chasing Shelley into a room full of bodybags and methodically testing each one of them until she naturally proves to be in the last.

Jump! to find Shelley's friend Kate (Marley Shelton) - Final Girl Kate, you remember meeting her - being goaded into a night of speed dating by her slutty friend Paige (Denise Richards, because duh). We get lots of useful exposition, of which the most important is that Kate is sort-of dating a guy Adam, who is sort of an alcoholic, and also Paige steals one of Kate's speed-dating prospects, Brian (Woody Jeffreys), who looks like the exact kind of transparently scummy douchebag that Denise Richards probably buzzes through like Junior Mints.

Then the news comes that Shelley is dead, and Kate and Paige are both extremely sad, and at the funeral we meet up with the other girls who dissed Jeremy that night: Lily (Jessica Cauffiel) and Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw) - a special case, since she actually went off to make out with the boy, but was shamed into accusing him of assaulting her, right around the same time that the jocks poured punch all over him, stripped him to his underpants, and started kicking him savagely in the ribs. Which is, in fairness, one of the more plausibly traumatising experiences that a 12-year-old boy could have.

Shortly after this, the girls all receive horribly threatening Valentines: cards with violent messages, chocolates filled with maggots, that sort of thing. Not hearts inside candy boxes, because even the creators of a film like Valentine have some vestige of shame left over. And at this point, I find that recapping is getting very boring, so in short: they figure out pretty quickly what's going on, but do very little other than tell half-truths to weary Detective Vaughn (Fulvio Cecere) and go on about their lives, which revolve around dating troubles, mostly: Lily's sleazy artist Max (Johnny Whitworth), Dorothy's sleazy financial whiz kid and possible con artist Campbell (Daniel Cosgrove), and Kate's soulful and brooding, yet also alcoholic - and, yes, sleazy - Adam (Boreanaz). "He's no angel" says Kate at one point."Fuck you, Kate", I said in reply. The whole thing ends at a Valentine's Day party, which along with the threatening cards is pretty much the sole reason that this film needs that title.

The niggardly distribution of murders for the bulk of Valentine - four in the first hour, compared to five in the next 31 minutes - leaves us with a great deal of time to fill with character drama, for a generous definition of "character". And "drama", for that matter. And before I go any further: yes, that means nine people die in total. Yes, there are, counting the already-dead Shelley, five girls on the killer's hit list. And if your guess is that the remainder is made of of a bunch of people on the sidelines killed for absolutely no reason that makes any story sense, you have obviously seen a slasher or two in your day. Yes, that is exactly what happens: Jeremy is indeed obliged to stalk and kill a great many people who do not get in his way whatsoever, because he has a good sense of what the kids like.

But as I was saying: "character" "drama". And it's not all bad: there are a few genuinely fun moments, or the odd scene here or there where it actually feels like these are people who have known each other for a decade or more. Plus, Marley Shelton makes for a pretty convincing horror movie lead, acting relatively like a human being would and not like a cardboard scream queen. The film does raise the frustrating question of how it's possible that someone like Richards can still be well-known, if only as that unspeakably horrible actress who does nothing good, while the cute and talented Shelton is lucky to show up in the fourth tier of Scream 4 stars. It just works out that way, sometimes.

The movie is pretty weirdly concerned with the dating lives of 25-year-olds in San Diego, then, and this does not make Valentine any more interesting nor any worse; just lets it stretch out to a healthy running time. Director Jamie Blanks - who has apologised for the film in the years since - doesn't do much to keep the pace up, but he also doesn't force any scenes to lag; and so on, and on, and on. It's an ideal slasher film, in some ways: going through all the motions required of the genre, without doing anything stupider than slasher films are by their nature. That it did all of this in 2001 is somewhat surprising.

Only one thing sets the film apart: the ending. Not, of course, the final reveal of Jeremy's secret identity (which is reasonably easy to guess, though I was briefly attracted to the red herring character that the film ultimately forgets about), but the Final Girl sequence, which is, honestly: pretty damn smart: Kate gets to do all of the things we always want slasher movie victims to do - fight back, talk to the killer using his language, to buy time, hide in sensible places that aren't in blind corners. None of these things do her much good, but it's kind of exciting to see such a smart example of the form, and that's on top of a whole film's worth of Shelton giving Kate more than her fair share of reasonable, relatable humanity. Blanks fucks this up a bit by using far too much cutting - like many 2000s horror films, Valentine seems to think that tension is best-served by rapid-fire editing, which is the exact opposite of the truth - but then, this is still a crummy film. Just a crummy film with some nice compensations. I hate to say that this leaves me disposed towards the film, but you know what other slasher film came out in the first third of 2001? Jason X. I can make do with "crummy".

Body Count: 9, as previously discussed.

4 comments:

RickR said...

This movie is so formlessly generic and seems like a veritable clone of "Prom Night". In fact, watching it, I kind of thought it WAS "Prom Night".

Doesn't Denise Richards die in a jacuzzi? I think I may have actually seen this in the theater, but I have almost no distinct memory of it.

a famous historian said...

Good review, Tim. Denise Richards is now mostly known for her private life, her weaknesses as an actress having caught up with her. Maybe Shelton, who gets to work with prestigious directors (Robert Rodriguez in Grindhouse, Wes Craven in Scream) even if it is in minor roles has it better after all?

Tim said...

Rick- Denise Richards does, in fact, die in a jacuzzi. And the film is, in fact, Prom Night with just enough wrinkles to keep it from being obvious - Leslie Nielsen is now a cop, the gap between the first scene and the rest is longer, and the psychosexual element is ramped up.

famous historian- God, I hope she keeps getting those parts.

Colin said...

Denise Richards appeared as herself on 30 Rock recently to figurehead, alongside Tracy Jordan, a society for the advancement of idiots, or some such organization, the pet cause of which was "Idiots are people too!"

She had a whole bunch of lines that were meant to make her seem dumber than a rock, so much so that even Tracy Jordan was baffled by her stupidity, and it all should have been good for a laugh except that Richards didn't come off as nearly as thick skinned or in-on-the-joke as, say, for instance, Jennifer Tilly in "Seed of Chucky", so it all just felt sort of desperate and sad and mean-spirited.

I'm not sure why I'm sharing that little anecdote except to say I'm sure Marley Shelton wouldn't trade her reputation for Richards's even given the chance.