Friday, December 16, 2011
Starring - Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier, Neil Affleck
Ahhh, 1981. The golden age of 'slasher' cinema. All it took was a holiday and a cool looking mask, and from there on out the sky was the limit. How I long for those simpler times. Every cliche is born somewhere, and the mid-70's to mid-80's was a veritable breeding ground for all manners of stalking and killing teenagers. For a brief but glorious period the 'slashing' templates were forged, sharp as a blade and pretty as a puncture wound, until they eventually stamped themselves out. My Bloody Valentine came at a very opportune time in the genre, when nothing more than a simple pick-axe through the jaw was sufficiently impressive, and excelled through some excellent cinematography, some uniquely mean-spirited kill scenes, and complete utilization of an inherently creepy locale. I would not be surprised to discover that the film makers had secured the mine location long before they had finalized the actual script.
After pillaging the studio's costume warehouse for a frightening face-covering and picking up a truck full of "Moosehead" to pay some small Canadian town for use of their shafts, the producer's next logical step would be to tie everything together via 'holiday'. Being far enough ahead of the curve to procure Valentine's Day, the hard part was already done. Crank out a little revenge rooted in the ignorance of authority, dispatch a group of rowdy youngsters (with a slight age increase to compensate for mining work), blatantly point suspicion at a couple of red herrings, and you got yourself a movie. Of course, when the screenplay is the final piece of the puzzle, as was often the case for this type of film, it is sometimes overtly apparent. My Bloody Valentine does exhibit a smattering of genuine wit and emotion, certainly more than a large number of it's contemporaries, but dialogue and characters frequently teeter between inadvertent kitsch and everlasting cornball.
It's been 20 fictional years since the small mining community of 'Valentine Bluffs' suffered a terrible supervisional tragedy, replacing the legend of the Saints with that of Harry Warden and halting any future festivities. Apparently fueled by the inadequacies of failing to live up to the town's moniker, a new generation of labourers have decided to reinstate the celebration in the only manner that a group of young adults possibly could: by hosting a dance in the local rec centre. You haven't lived until you've raised the roof off your town hall, fruit punch and baked goods style. Enter masked killer, exit jubilation.
The general pacing of the film is quite brisk, opening with a decent kill scene and never allowing more than 7 or 8 minutes to pass without presenting another bloody image. Viewers are treated to not only four kills during the introduction/characterization, said characters then move forward to discover the victims, or parts thereof, essentially doubling the on-screen carnage. The second act features two more kills and their after effects, as the group holds their illicit shindig; this set-up is in itself an interesting deviation as "the party" of similar cinematic ilk is usually reserved for the climactic showdown. Production foresight must have been at it's peak, because the final stage is set in the depths of the mine, a sprawling 30 minute showcase of dark corridors and discomforting angles that exhibits true behind-the-scenes talent.
Now, this next tidbit of personal information may serve as a revelation or a redundancy, pending circumstance; I am a die-hard 'slasher' fan. I have the natural tendency to divide 'slashers' into two key components: the "kill-scenes" and "everything else". Being quite literal, "everything else" encompasses all other elements, spanning from script to costumes to lighting to so on. Success at one of the key components can compensate for failure at the other, and vice versa, the ultimate goal remaining a mastery of both.
Amassing the coveted double-digit kill count, the murderous mayhem presented here relies less on 'point of impact' shots and moreso on the aforementioned aftermath. Actually bearing witness to the blade piercing flesh was the burgeoning frontrunner of "kill-scene" schematics, and remains an enjoyable staple of the genre. My Bloody Valentine does feature a couple of these necessities but the memorable horror is derived through revelation. The fellow's burnt flesh and boiled heart after bobbing for hot dogs, Mabel's charred body tumbling (albeit too quickly) from the dryer, Sylvia and her foreground fountain; each kill is designed to simultaneously terrify both the viewer and another character, making Harry Warden one of the tormentingest slashers of all time. Unlike his slashing brethren, he doesn't discriminate between observers of his handiwork - instead of sharing with just the 'survivor girl', Warden offers his die-o-ramas to everyone.
The moments surrounding each kill build the intensity by allowing the characters plenty of time to struggle with their harbinger of doom. The trend of an oblivious teen taking an arrow from behind or having their throat slit while investigating an unknown sound are thoroughly shirked. In their place is a string of young adults who stare death straight in the eye presumably contemplating their own demise. As the film progresses the P.O.V. shots formerly reserved for Warden's stalking, and typically allotted solely to the killer, expand to include the victim's view. These shot/reverse shot exchanges heighten the tension by alternating the panicked face with the futility of the panic (as represented by the stoic, emotionless answer of 'the mask'.) My personal favourite death belongs to Hollis, which even I find surprising considering how bloodless it is. After tracking down the freshly screwed Mike and Harriet, he faces Warden and stares as the nail gun rises; taking two to the head, he slinks off, only to perish in front of his beloved Patty. The sheer prolonged pain of the situation, both physical and emotional, is what morbidly appeals to me; stumbling around in the dark gravely wounded, holding on long enough to hitch up your last few breaths in front of the woman you're smitten on. Good, clean, malicious fun.
The film does lose some of it's verve when bridging the gap between kills, which is a real shame because not all of it is bottom rung film making. Some self-reflexive wit does shine through, such as the "Friday February 13th" subtitle, and the humorous response to the bartender's obligatory straight-into-the-camera premonitory warning.
It could be you!
Cut to two(2) disinterested teens, neither a part of the core group. TEEN 1 blinks.
Unfortunately, the majority of fallback filler is the love-stricken bickering between T.J. and Axel, neither of which are played by the most spectacular of actors. Upon establishing a legitimate connection through a very simple, impromptu harmonica duet, their relationship descends to nothing less than 5 'bitch and moan' sessions backed by lackluster punches and invoking my screams of "Get fucking over it!" The un-dynamic duo of T.J. and Sarah don't fare too much better, clunkily delivering such multi-layered sentiments as "You left!" or "I love you!" atop bumpy landscapes and grating folk ballads. Some of this time should have been delegated to Axel and Sarah, thus imbuing the "surprise" unveiling with that much more power, and spread out amongst the rest of the group, provided token crack-up Howard doesn't waste it trying to be funny.
At the 1 hour mark six characters, envisioned for better or worse, descend into the mine allowing the story to become propelled by atmosphere. The framing is forcibly confined by the long passageways or the obscuring extreme foreground walls, and the camera often creates odd angles by hugging one side of an opening or sitting just a few degrees off the X-axis. The semi-iconic shot of Warden advancing towards the camera while breaking light bulbs is an aesthetically pleasing manipulation of light and shadow, but I remain much more impressed by the hued circular glares from his headlamp as he confronts T.J. Visually gorgeous, and quite possibly completely accidental. The cramped ladder-climbing sequence is an excellent example of the technical expertise and fancy footworkers devoted to realizing the mine's claustrophobic instability.
One of the most important aspects of watching a movie is taking into account when and where the movie came from. I would be hard pressed to imagine that the gang's acapella waitress ditty would play as anything but laughable nowadays, and to be honest I'm not comfortable accepting that it was even cool back then. My Bloody Valentine was, however, at the forefront of the genre when it was released, helping to perpetuate the modern stereotypes that we know and love. Undeniably noteworthy, the poor writing keeps it just out of reach of "Top _" lists; but it certainly deserves more praise then it seems to get for it's many successful elements. Those simply cannot be denied. The general tipping point of enjoyment probably lies in the subjective difference between 'kitschy' and just plain 'dated'. I cannot begrudge those who fail to appreciate the basic pleasures offered by a faded, pastel title card; or a giggling, high-pitched closing diatribe that gives utterance to the film's very title; or end credits set to an original Harry Warden folk song. That is their prerogative. I can offer them only my pity.