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Dustin Putman

Valentine  (2001)
3 Stars
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: Rated R (for strong violence, profanity, and sexuality).
Originally reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 3, 2001; extensively revised January 25, 2019.
"Valentine" was not well-received upon its initial theatrical release in February 2001. Arriving near the end of the late-'90s/early-'00s slasher cycle reinvigorated by 1996's "Scream," the film was faced with a critical backlash from reviewers tired of all the "I Know What You Did Last Summer"s and "Urban Legend"s of the world. In lieu of repeating the pattern of a mystery killer offing teenage characters until his/her/their identity is exposed and a motive revealed to the Final Girl, "Valentine" has more in common with '80s slasher flicks wherein a jilted/humiliated/injured outsider seeks revenge years later against those who wronged them—in this case, a group of post-collegiate twenty-something characters whose middle-school sins of the past catch up to them with grisly results over the namesake holiday. A whodunit quality to the proceedings remains, but the payoff is quite different and surprisingly refreshing from the similar genre items which preceded this one. Director Jamie Blanks gave "Valentine" the same slick, handsome style and attention to character as his previous successful effort, 1998's "Urban Legend," but by this point, purely on principle, most horror-weary critics were predisposed to hate it before they set eyes upon it. I was not one of them; having reviewed the film for Rotten Tomatoes back in 2001 (its current rating: a brutal 9%), I was one of the few to defend it with a positive review and a "fresh" tomato. Eighteen years later, I can't escape hearing from viewers who claim to appreciate the film, too. Perhaps they were there all along, but it sure didn't seem like it back in the day.

In a prologue set at a junior high school dance in 1988, a nerdy young boy named Jeremy Melton is severely traumatized when four classmates turn down his invitations to dance, and a fifth—a heavyset girl named Dorothy—falsely accuses him of attacking her in front of other classmates when they are caught kissing under the bleachers. Thirteen years later, four of the now-grown ladies reunite at the funeral of the fifth, Shelley (Katherine Heigl), found brutally murdered while studying for her pre-med final. Immediately afterward, sweet-natured Kate (Marley Shelton), sensual Paige (Denise Richards), playful Lily (Jessica Cauffiel), and the slimmed-down but still insecure Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw) begin receiving grisly, threatening Valentine cards signed "JM." Could their former middle-school classmate, whom they haven't seen in years, be out to seek revenge on those who did him wrong? And if so, might he be someone already in their lives?

Very loosely based on the novel by Tom Savage, "Valentine" stands out in 2019 as both an affectionate throwback to the slasher films of old and startlingly ahead of its time, exploring the struggle to find a quality romantic partner amid a sea of lecherous, objectifying men. The female characters can be a bit prickly themselves—some are more empathetic than others to the cruelty they inflicted on Jeremy when they were preteens—but they are also strong, complicated individuals, trying to take control of their young-adult lives while not yet fully aware of the mortal danger lurking in the shadows. Screenwriters Donna Powers & Wayne Powers and Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts treat their narrative seriously but aren't shy about introducing natural observational humor to the mix, giving the proceedings and the women at its center a spunky, spiky verve.

The mystery killer's guise, complete with black cloak and rosy cherub mask, is disconcerting in its angelic creepiness. Director Jamie Blanks, aided immeasurably by Rick Bota's lustrously sleek, moody cinematography, prospers with his often thrilling, tension-fraught set-pieces and a certain restraint in the theatrical cut when it comes to its violence and viscera. There's a bit of that, to be sure, but Blanks appears more interested in stylish camera movements, tight editing, and darkly mischievous sequences of mayhem to create a distinct atmosphere of dread. The movie makes no bones about its old-fashioned, "let-me-go-soak-in-the-hot-tub-as-a-killer-lurks-in-the-house" horror conventions, but that is part of the fun.

One of the biggest stars of "Valentine" is its beautifully seasonal production design by Stephen Geaghan—a character all its own—with the entire third act set at a Valentine's Day party at Dorothy's family's mansion decked out in holiday decorations and a fitting interior design (the red-checkered billiard room is especially indelible). The picture's crimson color scheme cleverly foreshadows the holiday throughout, while also serving to underscore the threat of death enshrouding the characters.

Marley Shelton ably provides the honest center for the film as put-upon journalist Kate, grappling with her on-again/off-again relationship with alcoholic boyfriend Adam (David Boreanaz). Denise Richards brings a vivacious spirit and sly comic timing to Paige, finding power in her sexuality and unafraid to stand up for herself. Jessica Capshaw poignantly plays Dorothy with the complex shades the role requires, unable to shed feelings of self-doubt even as she has shed the pounds of her overweight childhood. Katherine Heigl is memorable with only ten minutes of screen time as Shelley, trapped after-hours in her lonesome med school with the cherub slayer. Of the cast, only David Boreanaz doesn't fully sell his part; he shares a few charismatic moments with Shelton's Kate, but stands apart from most of the goings-on and has trouble getting to the heart of who Adam is.

"Valentine" does not attempt to reinvent its genre, but understands—and delivers—upon providing nail-biting entertainment, solid characters, and imaginative stalk-and-slash sequences. The double-twist ending, too, finds a certain logic in its grim suggestions. Full of visual flair and a heartful mix of suspense, portent, and romance (most, alas, of the failed variety), the film worked well in 2001, naysayers be damned, and perhaps is even more at home when seen with a modern, altogether more woke 2019 lens. It may have taken a while to garner the cult following it deserves, but there's a reason "Valentine" continues to gain fans: it's an unapologetically feminist slasher tale, its style and personality a cut above most.
© 2001/2019 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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