With his partner-in-crime from hit TV phantom-buster, Supernatural, busy going toe-to-toe with Jason Vorhees in the new Friday The 13th movie (see BD review), Jensen Ackles branches out into big movie madness with another 80's redux, director Patrick Lussier's take on My Bloody Valentine. Although the original 1981 movie was hacked more by the censor than by its resident nut-job, this remake has actually helped bring about a release of the full uncut version (only on SD at the moment, though) and it is clear that pickaxe murdering is still a mighty grisly ingredient in any horror film.
Following the basic plot of the original, but hefting a couple of twists and turns to keep those familiar with the older version guessing, this slicker, bloodier incarnation of My Bloody Valentine does for dark tunnels and gas masks what big rubber sharks did for skinny-dipping ... or, at least, it tries to. After a flashy headline-sifting prologue detailing the disastrous pit-collapse in a mine way up north in Pennsylvania, we find out how one survivor, Harry Ward, has gone murderously insane following his experience, his mind caving-in as much as the shaft had done around him. After waking up from a coma on Valentine's Day, he hacks his way through the hospital ward that housed him, makes tracks for the source of his rage and preys on the teens who have congregated there for an ill-conceived party, clocking-up twenty-two kills in the blink of an eye. But even though help arrives in the nick of time and Harry is seemingly killed by the cops, the trauma and terror of the bloodbath have left their marks on the town of Harmony and scarred three people in particular. Ten years later, Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles), like a prodigal son, comes back home with the accursed intentions of finally closing down the family mine, something that will, effectively, kill off the entire community. But no sooner has he arrived in town than people start to get carved-up all over again and suspicions begin to filter out in every direction about who is stalking around in that freaky boiler suit and mining gas mask. Could it be that Harry Ward has returned from the grave and is up to his old tricks again? Or has someone else taken up his deadly quest? Whoever it is who is cutting a bloody swathe through the town, it would seem that they certainly have an axe to grind with the local population.
What sets My Bloody Valentine apart from the usual crop of creepy cut 'em ups is the mystery that surrounds these blue-collar denizens. Everybody seems to have a secret or two - and one person, in particular, may have more than their fair share. But one thing is for certain, the dark deeds of the past will resurface to haunt the good folk of the ill-named Harmony and the death-toll will rise even higher before the killer is finally unmasked.
But Twin Peaks, this ain't.
With the gas mask and boiler-suit combo a strangely ominous one - even Paddy Considine sported a similar look in Shane Meadow's brilliant Dead Man's Shoes - Valentine's killer stalks Harmony like a poverty-row Darth Vader on Britain's Got Talent. I mentioned in my review for the new Friday The 13th BD release how I thought that a lone psycho preying on teens - or anybody, for that matter - that actually outnumber him is frankly unbelievable in this day and age of wholesale gang brutality, but the same can't really be said about this guy's rampage. Picking on loners, or isolated couples, and relying on cunning and stealth to catch his prey, his rampage is less prone to immediate gung-ho retaliation. However, one thing that must be stated is that no-one, but no-one, can see properly with a gas mask on - and this would lead to all sorts of potential blunders for the killer to have to negotiate his way around, which would make him one of the easiest of aggressors to get away from. Mind you, he can't half throw that axe a long way, can't he?
Texas-born Jensen Ackles has stated that acting for the Real-D 3D FX camera-rigs that stereographer Max Penner designed was a weird experience in that every movement, every action, expression or facial tick had to be exaggerated, almost as though he and his fellow cast were performing on stage. These cameras, 40 and 50 mm lenses, by necessity, do not utilise much in the way of close-ups, as depth and distance are crucial to the 3D filming process. Thus, Ackles and Co have to be aware of the expanded environment and act accordingly. Well, that may have been the case for the actors whilst on-set, but there is nothing pronounced or animated about the performances in this film, especially that of Ackles, himself, who wanders through it all as though he is still memorising his lines for the next episode of Supernatural. He brings to Harmony none of the wit or charisma that his terror-bashing TV hero clearly possesses, which is a shame because we really need someone with a bit of personality to anchor this. It is true that most of the characters residing in Lussier's film are dull and one-note, but they are, at the very least, better than the standardised teen-fodder that normally populate such material. They do have some background to weigh them down and a seam of emotional angst that will, ultimately, come boiling to the surface, providing a little meat for the screenplay to cut through. Kerr Smith, as the very young-looking Sheriff Axel Palmer (a couple of day's worth of stubble-growth doesn't fool anybody, mate), has a long-standing rivalry with Tom. They both love the same woman, a woman that Axel married during Tom's estranged absence, and neither trust the other for one second. Jaime King, who plays Axel's wife, Sarah, isn't quite the usual horror damsel, even if she does submit to the standard cliché of falling over at the most inconvenient of times, and with a bit more thematic material to chew on she would have been pivotal in swinging our concerns to and fro over this unwanted, and dangerous love-triangle. The lame add-on of a young son feels like contrived nonsense, though, writers Todd Farmer and Zane Smith far too eager to remove this clutch of characters from the conventional kids that dominate killer pictures. The poor lad is only in there to spike our concerns during one violent seige, but the relationship between him and his mother is never once credible.
Patrick Lussier directs largely without much distinction. A veteran of second and third instalments in lacklustre horror series, My Bloody Valentine is his biggest production to date. Although the film rattles along quite merrily and there are certainly some atmospheric sequences along the way, especially in the woods and the old secluded house, he fails to elicit much actual fear of the loopy Miner, himself. In fact, he allows something of a Scary Movie kind of demeanour to lessen the killer's presence, in that the Miner often hits the deck, takes a tumble, gets a whack or two to the bonce or just plain misses his target out of sheer clumsiness. Several key action scenes lose a little of their impact because the killer doesn't have that same looming intensity that the majority of his contemporaries have. Admittedly, it isn't necessary, I mean there really aren't that many deranged psychopaths running around out there in real life that are built like brick outhouses, so it could be seen as refreshing to have one that we know could probably blend in with the crowd once he'd taken his crazy costume off. But surely we are meant to cower and whimper whenever the Miner appears, axe in hand and helmet torch beaming down at us? The editing and the FX work so well, and the film always looks slick and engrossing ... so it is just a shame that the fear factor slips through Lussier's fingers all too easily.
But where Friday The 13th lacked invention with its kills, My Bloody Valentine more than comes up with the goods. I'm sure there is a lot of mileage, joke-wise, to be had at the expense of swinging a midget around on the sharp end of a pickaxe but, for now, let's just agree that it is definitely a novelty and that Lussier has to be given the benefit of the doubt for such a wildly violent and unusual set-piece demise. Numerous head-puncturings and a quick shot of a hospital ward blood-bath (kudos going to the guy who has actually been cut in half) keep things moving with messy aplomb, but the unbelievably drawn-out sequence in which a nude hooker (the extraordinarily game-for-anything Betsy Rue) is terrorised before her long-overdue demise is a particular low-point in a movie that does, admittedly, wear its sleazy sex 'n' gore badge with pride. Nice chassis or not, I would have sunk my weapon into the irritating vixen long before the moment when an upturned bed fails to provide quite the protective barrier she seems to think it might! Oh, come one, now - I was talking about the axe! What would have been another cool element in Valentine's favour is the whodunnit angle, but despite the plethora of red-herrings, nobody is going to slap a hand to their head in astonishment at the final reveal. But you have to be thankful that the film does, at least, adhere to the Scooby-Doo style guessing-game that most modern horror films are wont to do away with. It is actually good to have a bit of mystery surrounding the blood-letting, at least it gives us something else to think about. I mean, you don't get much of that when Jason is on the loose, do you?
Sadly, the set-piece slaughter doesn't entirely set the pulse racing, despite being considerably better than the anaemic, ten-a-penny PG-13 dross that normally pads out the genre - things like Prom Night (itself, a remake) and One Missed Call. The prevailing, small town atmosphere is an enjoyable one, however, which wins by virtue of the mineshaft setting and the supreme location work topside - all filmed around the Tour-Ed Mine in Kittanning, Pennsylvania. Yet, once events begin to pile up after the store-attack, the film gets sloppy and seems unable to fully catch its breath. Suddenly a character or two appear almost completely out of the blue and although this is done to add to our confusion and paranoia over exactly who the killer might be, the focus becomes irrational and haphazard. However, the final stand-off is actually quite neat and gets away with it purely because it is so over-the-top.
At this point we should separate the 3D version from the 2D because, even film-wise, the experience is quite different. Although not structured like some hokey 1950's “in-yer-facer” where things are routinely shoved directly at you and waggled there under your nose until you've really gotten the point, the movie has been designed as a thrill-ride that you feel a part of. The weaponry thrust our way and the sudden shocks that cleave out of the screen at us are one thing - and nicely achieved, they are too - but the sense of being drawn into the picture is prevalent throughout, with streets, the diner, the motel, the hospital and the mineshafts all enveloping us with a smooth conviction that never actually feels all that showy. This is a definite step towards the “naturalisation” of 3D imagery. Although the axes being hurled out at us, and the eyeballs hanging there right before our own are the most memorable aspects of the process, the movie doesn't go overboard on such things and, as far as I am concerned, it could get by quite rewardingly with just the scenic involvement of the township and the movement of the characters around the environment. This is no Beowulf or Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, however. It plays to its strengths and doesn't abuse the idea which, for a slasher-pic, is both strangely restrained and welcome. There are still lots of guns pointed at us, the barrels really looming out of the screen. A scene set in the local tavern is wonderfully done, with our focus kept on the guys talking at the bar at the front of the image, whilst over their shoulders we can see the people in the booth at the back of the joint - and the depth and realism of the shot is spot-on. I was a bit perturbed that the bartender didn't pass me the drink I'd ordered.
This film, although still R-rated, is much bloodier than Friday The 13th but it is also much more comic-book in tone. It doesn't opt for depravity like a lot of today's jaded horror output and plays very much in the good old, positively even quaint, style of the original slew of shockers from that pivotal era. Despite some harassment of victims, there is no torture-porn here. But Brit makeup-fx guru, Gary Tunnicliffe puts some delicious zeal into the killings. Just look at that partial decapitation via shovel, the victim's head, from the mouth up, sliding down the blade towards us after the rest of her body has dropped out of shot. A vicious jaw-cleaving is beautifully brutal bit of improvised dentistry, too. Shock thuds into skulls with that demented pickaxe are staggeringly pulverising and there is a lot of satisfaction to be gained from the mayhem showcased. Tunnicliffe has worked on a lot of horror sequels - for Hellraiser, Pumpkinhead, Pulse and Return Of The Living Dead - but some of his most accomplished gags can be found in this and they certainly energise the movie. It is also great to see that he was able to pay homage to the original Valentine's most celebrated death - that of a poor woman boiled and battered in a tumble-dryer.
With some solid support from genre veterans like Tom (The Fog, Halloween III) Atkins and Kevin Tighe, who has one of those faces that is familiar from a hundred TV shows, and even a cameo from the film's co-writer, Todd Farmer, as a doomed truck-driver who very swiftly gets a point about chauvinism rammed home to him, the film is fleshed-out beyond the hip, but rather stale leads. Michael Wandmacher delivers a perfunctory and formulaic score, though. It jolts and blurts at the appropriate times, but has little substance or individuality to help take the film to the next level of suspense.
But My Bloody Valentine is still a solid and entertaining exercise in assembly-line kills and one that certainly isn't boring. You just have to set your sights accordingly.
It's a tough call deciding which is the better horror film, this or Friday The 13th, but I would probably pick the mad Miner's murderous escapade simply because it has more plot and more gore. Neither movie is clever, challenging or brings anything new to the terror table, but they do make for a reasonably agreeable, nostalgia-tinged double-bill of murder and mayhem, should you feel so inclined to bolt them both together for one sitting. Having watched them back to back, myself, I would actually recommend the experience as being pleasingly retro. Either way, My Bloody Valentine offers some enjoyable thrills and spills on its own terms. And it is unashamedly excellent fun in 3D.
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