Directed by Jamie Blanks
Cast: Marley Shelton, Denise Richards, Jessica Capshaw, David Boreanaz, Jessica Cauffiel, Katherine Heigl, Daniel Cosgrove, Hedy Burress, Johnny Whitworth, Fulvio Cecere, Benita Ha.
2001 95 minutes
Rated: (for strong violence, profanity, and sexuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 3, 2001.
Imagine my surprise to find that "Valentine," directed by Jamie Blanks (1998's "Urban Legend"), has more in common with the slasher films of the late-'70s/early-'80s, than those of the "oh-so-clever," jokey, post-"Scream" era of the late-'90s. With everything from "Scream" and its sequels, to "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and its sequel, to "Urban Legend" and its sequel, following the same pattern of a mystery killer offing teenage characters until their identity is exposed and they explain their motive to the remaining cast members, it was a genuine pleasure to sit back and watch a group of non-teen actors getting dispatched of in a grisly way, with the motive of the killer determined within the opening five minutes. Sure, there is still a whodunit quality to the proceedings, but the payoff is quite different and surprisingly refreshing from the recent slew of, as Roger Ebert calls them, Mad Slasher Movies.
"Valentine" also follows in the footsteps of the nostalgic holiday-set slashers, such as 1978's "Halloween," 1974's "Black Christmas," 1980's "New Year's Evil," and even 1981's "My Bloody Valentine." The movie makes no bones about its old-fashioned, "let-me-go-bathe-in-the-hot-tub-as-a-killer-lurks-in-the-house" horror conventions, but that is part of the fun. The impressive production values, however, are very much of a decidedly 2001 nature, as is its healthy budget that afforded such rising young stars as Denise Richards (1999's "The World is Not Enough"), David Boreanaz (WB's "Angel"), Katherine Heigl (WB's "Roswell"), and Marley Shelton (2000's "Sugar & Spice").
In a prologue set at a junior high school dance in 1988, a nerdy, bespectacled boy is severely traumatized when he asks five classmates to dance, all of which turn him down except one--a heavyset girl who later accused him of attacking her in front of other classmates. Switch forward 13 years, four of the now-grown girls reunite at the funeral of the fifth, Shelley (Katherine Heigl), who is brutally murdered while studying for her pre-med final. Immediately afterwards, sweet-natured Kate (Marley Shelton), sexy Paige (Denise Richards), bitchy Lily (Jessica Cauffiel), and the now-pretty, poor-little-rich-girl Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw), begin receiving grisly, threatening Valentine cards as the holiday approaches. Could their former middle school classmate, whom they haven't seen in years, be out to seek revenge on those that did him wrong? And if so, might he be someone that is already in their lives?
Loosely based on the acclaimed novel by Tom Savage, "Valentine" stands out from the recent spate of slasher films because of its simple throwback to the setup and payoff of the horror movies of old. Aside from natural humor that surfaces from some of the dialogue, the film takes itself very seriously, and divulges several good scary moments and more than a couple thrilling, suspenseful setpieces. While many of the older, lesser slasher flicks relied on nothing more than gore and exploitative violence, "Valentine" manages to keep the tension level high, and is actually pretty tame as far as blood-and-guts goes. There's a bit of that, to be sure, but talented director Jamie Blanks, whose first film, "Urban Legend," was the best of the post-"Scream" knockoffs, is more interested in stylish camera movements, tight editing, and genuinely unsettling sequences of mayhem to create a distinct atmosphere of dread.
One of the biggest stars of "Valentine" is its gorgeously sleek, threatening production design by Stephen Geaghan, which becomes a character all its own, particularly in the climax set at a Valentine's Day party at Dorothy's family's wooded mansion. The cinematography, by Rick Bota, is also top-notch, particularly its truly eerie use of red to not only cleverly foreshadow the holiday, but also the threat of death that grows around the characters as the story progresses. The makers of "Valentine" have succeeded awesomely in their challenge to make the title holiday palpably felt, and potentially dangerous.
The characters are a grab-bag of both the likable and spiteful variety, which actually aids the film more than it hurts it, because, in some strange way, we are supposed to feel sympathy for the killer. The jury is still out if director Blanks is successful on this count, but he does allow you to at least grow to care about three of the characters--Kate; her boyfriend Adam (David Boreanaz), who is struggling with his alcoholism; and Dorothy, who has now lost a lot of weight but feels remorse for the way she treated her junior high classmate when she was really in the same boat as he at the time.
Marley Shelton ably provides the honest center for the film, and is better here than she was in the recent "Sugar & Spice." Getting to play a more adult, mature character, Shelton is a beautiful face, and just the sight of her smile creates an overwhelming feeling of warmth and realism. More importantly, she is very good as the put-upon Kate, and hopefully this will be her breakthrough role.
The biggest name in the cast is Denise Richards, whose performances have ranged from trashily great (1998's "Wild Things") to middling (1999's "Drop Dead Gorgeous") to downright bad ("The World Is Not Enough"). As the sexually powerful Paige, who takes almost everything in her life for granted, including her own attractiveness, Richards respectably creates a well-rounded character with the material provided, and even gets a few chances to test out her comedic skills.
In his first feature film since he hit it big on TV's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" and currently its spinoff, "Angel," David Boreanaz does fine work in a mostly superfluous supporting role, while Jessica Capshaw, as Dorothy, turns in a poignant portrayal of someone who is so insecure with herself that she doesn't yet know where she fits into the world. Finally, Katherine Heigl is memorable with only ten minutes of screen time as the first victim of the creepy Cherub mask-wearing killer.
The purpose of a slasher film is two-fold: it should be entertaining, yet scary, fun, yet nail-biting. It's fairly safe to say director Blanks and screenwriters Donna Powers, Wayne Powers, Gretchen J. Berg, and Aaron Harberts were not attempting to recreate the wheel when they made "Valentine," so there is no use in even expecting a masterpiece. However, thanks to Blanks' numerous inspired Hitchcockian elements that he subtly pays tribute to, as well as the surprising twist ending that, for once, does make sense, "Valentine" ends up being the next best thing: a modern-day slasher pic that is a step above most.
©2001 by Dustin Putman