Sunday, February 14, 2010

When Homicidal Harry Met Three-Dimensional Fun

(In honor of Valentine's Day, a reprint of my review of last year's MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D that appeared on the now-defunct website FEAR ZONE.)

Remember when horror movies used to be fun? When movie going was an actual experience, one not wrought with endless analysis? In our increasingly hypercritical times, when everyone with an Internet connection is an armchair quarterback, horror films have become victim to our own cynicism. Surprisingly, a strong dose of authentic, cinematic entertainment – the kind that requires nothing more than a bag of greasy popcorn and an arm to grab hold of – returned to theaters this week last year by way of an unlikely source: the dreaded remake.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D plays like a pure, golden era slasher circa 1980’s but updated with modern technology and a shrewd understanding of its own limitations. Purists of the original will be relieved to find that the movie pays dutiful respect to its 1981 source material while modernizing it for an audience that has missed out on the simplicity of old school escapism.

Like George Mihalka’s original, the action of MY BLOODY VALENTINE centers around an industrial town and its blue collar lifeblood, in both cases the Hanniger Mine. In an opening sequence that grinds anything resembling subtleness into the ground, the audience witnesses Harry Warden (the underrated, shoulda-been-a-slasher-icon from the original film) awakening from a coma after a mining explosion leaves him a sole survivor with vengeance on the mind. When Warden’s newfound homicidal tendencies kick in, there isn’t an inch of hospital not coated with blood, guts, and gore. The audience has no doubt that this is a roller coaster ride set into motion and there’s no getting off.

Flash forward ten years as the late mine owner’s son, Tom Hanniger (SUPERNATURAL’S Jensen Ackles), whose inexperience caused the infamous explosion that set off Warden’s psychopathic rampage, returns to Harmony to inherit and close the mine. Personal drama sticks close to the source material as Tom finds one-time love Sarah (Jaime King) now married to his one-time friend and new town sheriff Axel Palmer (DAWSON’S CREEK alum Kerr Smith). In a twist on the original film’s love triangle, there’s also a subplot that reveals Axel to be a philandering husband, cheating on the earnest Sarah with one of her grocery store employees (Megan Boone).

Before Tom has unpacked his bags at the local motel, someone with a penchant for miner’s garb and a pickaxe dispatches with Axel’s former high school sweetheart Irene (Betsy Rue in one of the longest full-frontal nude scenes in horror film history) and her sleazy truck-driving hookup named Frank (played with surprising aptitude – and an admirable derrière – by screenwriter Todd Farmer).

Soon there are myriad murders and more red herrings than you can shake a pointy pickaxe at. Has Harry Warden, who seemingly escapes at the end of the film’s prologue, come back to further exact his vengeance? What secrets do mine manager Ben Foley (Kevin Tighe) and former Harmony lawman Sheriff Burke (Tom Atkins) harbor in connection with old Harry Warden? Do Tom’s whereabouts for the past ten years play any part in the mystery? Like the best slashers, MY BLOODY VALENTINE – past and present – have that element of mystery at their core. Farmer and co-screenwriter Zane Smith (working from the late John Beaird’s original screenplay) do a commendable job layering the plot just enough to keep the audience guessing without overpowering the essence of the slasher formula at play here.

Acting is heads and shoulders above the usual slasher fare, with none of the actors giving the impression that they’re slumming it in slasher territory as is too often the case. And while Ackles and King doing solid work here, it’s Smith who elevates his role to something not often seen in the medium. He proves remarkably capable of carrying a large part of the film, imbuing his well-scripted character with the flaws and attributes necessary to deliver an honest, nuanced performance as three-dimensional as the special effects. Rue is something of a revelation here (3-D boobies notwithstanding) and Boone proves herself one of the most competent screamers since Jamie Lee Curtis. But the gem of the supporting cast is genre favorite Tom Atkins, whose substantive role as Harmony’s retired sheriff provides a glorious dose of horror nostalgia. His appearance here makes MY BLOODY VALENTINE seem like one big welcome home party for homesick slasher fans weary from a spate of lifeless PG-13 remakes and torture flicks. Kudos to casting director Nancy Nayor for locking him down for this triumphant genre return.

Director Patrick Lussier knows his way around a slasher film and clearly has affection for his low-budget Canadian predecessor. Pacing is tight, with scarce time to regroup after the various terror sequences he expertly stages and executes. There’s more than one obligatory wink to the forty-something crowd who grew up watching the original film on late night cable — with some of the best set pieces from the 1981 film making updated appearances (think clothes dryers, blood-soaked candy boxes, and falling miner outfits). Even when the extended prologue’s mine-set conclusion seemingly leaves off where the original film did, older fans are almost left with the impression that this is the sequel that never was.

Lussier also knows how to optimize the film’s amazing RealD™ technology, using the three-dimensional experience for not only all the expected tricks involving objects hurling toward the screen but also to immerse the audience in everything from the depth of the mine sequences to ordinary sets. This multifaceted approach to use of the technology creates a lushness to the film not seen in the last round of 3-D features in the 80’s (PARASITE, anyone?) — one that will draw audiences in and involve them in the film itself.

There was bound to be a slasher remake that hit its mark much in the same way John Carpenter’s THE THING or Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS did for their sci-fi predecessors. Slasher fans may have found their credible remake in MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D. With skill and genuine fondness for an oft-maligned genre, Lussier and company extract all those elements that worked in the original film, improve those that didn’t, and infuse the proceedings with their own creative flair and a technology that never overpowers but enhances the overall movie experience.

Bloody Bonus: For those of you who missed it, also check out my interview with MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D and JASON X screenwriter Todd Farmer at DARK SCRIBE MAGAZINE.

Or, prefer your slashers old-school? Then let's revisit the low-budget holiday horror of the original MY BLOODY VALENTINE.

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