From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Madness in Dark Fantasy and Horror on Film: Why My Bloody Valentine 3D May Be the First True Chick Slasher

Madness is a staple of horror and dark fantasy. There are reasons for this, namely that horror is based on stimulating primal instincts (fear, most of all, but also lust, revenge, etc.), that the situations in horror tend to push characters over the edge, and that madness alters the perception of reality, distorting it so that even “normal” seems horrific. Everything’s fantasy from a psychotic perspective.

So, I went to see My Bloody Valentine 3D last weekend and by God, I think that the makers of this film have finally done the previously-not-thought-possible: they have created the first true chick slasher (take that however you want, fanfic lovers). Women, my friends, like this film. More than men.

Speaking of altered perceptions of reality, 3D really lends itself to a specific perspective. It’s a lot like staring into a diorama at the Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, filmmakers are going to have to get over the urge to poke the audience in the eye every five minutes with something or other and get back to showing what people are actually doing inside that diorama. But that’s a column for another time.

And before I proceed any farther, let me warn you that I’m going to spoil the stories I talk about up, down, sideways and in 3D because the fates of the protagonists in these stories are extremely important to what I’m trying to get across. So, if you hate that, bail out now.

Back to madness. And My Bloody Valentine 3D.

Madness, as I said, is common to horror and dark fantasy and it goes waaaayyy back. Half of Edgar Allen Poe’s characters were psychotic (The Tell-Tale Heart from 1843 would be a classic here). Ditto H.P. Lovecraft in stories like The Rats in the Walls (1923). Lovecraft even wrote a story called “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931). Can’t get much more explicit than that.

However, madness in horror has been more often attributed to women–Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ protagonist, Jane, of The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), who is literally “rest-cured” to insanity. Irena of Cat People (1942), whose dim bulb husband would rather believe she’s crazy than that her angry, black-leopard alter ego is going to eat him and his new bit on the side. Stephen King’s eponymous heroine/villain Carrie White (1976), who flips out after years of bullying and parental abuse and TKs her school prom to the ground in a blazing inferno. The terrified young witch of Suspiria (1977), who burns down her school to revenge herself and her dead friends on her malevolent schoolmistresses. Marie, the protagonist/villain of Haute Tension (2003), who thinks she’s saving the girl she loves from an evil faceless trucker that kills the girl’s entire family, until we find out that the evil faceless trucker is actually an alternate personality of Marie’s and the heroic identity is just Marie’s fantasy. ‘Cause the idea of playing it straight, as it were, and having a heroic lesbian character who gets the girl after saving her from the slasher bad guy for real is just nutty. [facepalm] Such a step forward that film was for women, wasn’t it?

My Bloody Valentine 3D is a remake of a quirky 1981 Canadian horror film notorious for suffering its own humongous slashing by the MPAA. It was one of those that got the genre’s point–this is fun-house horror of the “Hey, wanna see an eyeball pop right out of a guy’s head?” variety. The original was notable for its setting (a gloomy, rundown mining town in Nova Scotia), its cast (going-nowhere, working-class folk about a decade older than the usual slasher’s dumb teens) and its villain–a terrifyingly anonymous figure in a miner’s costume named “Harry Warden”. I liked it, but then, I’m a big fan of Canuck Indies.

The remake introduces some critical changes to the plot, but keeps the original love triangle. And ups the gore. And adds a really OTT nude chase scene. For the boys, you know.

The protagonist, Tom (Jensen Ackles) works in a mine and is the owner’s son. He makes a rookie mistake that traps a group of miners, including Harry Warden (Richard John Walters). Harry survives by killing the other miners to save his air, then wakes from a coma a year later to slaughter 22 people, first at the hospital and then the mine. As one reviewer, Sylvia Bond, puts it on Pink Raygun.com: “there seems to be some insanity brought on by too much coal dust that gives everyone [in this film] the blind sense of a homing pigeon, home is Mine Shaft #5.”

At one point, Sarah (Jaime King), Axel (Kerr Smith) and Irene (Betsy Rue) are pursued by Harry in his miner’s outfit. Tom, who is still feeling guilty about his mistake, has lingered outside the mine rather than go into the party. But he comes running to help when he hears the screaming. Despite this courageous act, when Harry corners him, the others betray Tom and drive off, abandoning him to his fate. Charming. After a brief chase when Tom unsuccessfully tries to escape Harry on his own, Police Chief Burke (Tom Atkins) shoots Harry just as Harry is about to put a pickaxe through Tom’s skull. We later find out that Burke and Mayor Ben Foley (Kevin Tighe) then covered up Harry’s lynching and buried his body in an unmarked grave in the woods, miner’s outfit and all.

Flash-forward ten years and Tom’s back in town. His father has died and left him the mine, which he wants to sell. Axel is the new sheriff; Sarah has married him; and Irene is banging truck drivers at the local motel. Rather than welcome him back with open arms, let alone apologize for abandoning him to die, Axel accuses Tom when Irene, her truck-driver boyfriend (writer Todd Farmer in a bit of Hitchcockian self-insertion) and motel owner Selene (Selene Luna) are killed in a massacre. Sarah is bitter that Tom left town ten years before (the age of her eight-something son, Noah, hints at why). Meanwhile, Ben wants to block Tom from selling the mine. He fears that the mine will close down and effectively kill an isolated town that Axel so tactfully calls “inbred”. And Burke just plain wants Tom gone.

Tension increases when a trip to the woods uncovers an empty grave where Harry should have been. Is it a copycat or is Harry back? Could he be alive or a vengeful spirit like Tony Todd’s Candyman?

Well, it’s all of them in a way. Seems Tom has been in a mental hospital for seven of the past ten years. Axel immediately leaps on this as “proof” that Tom is guilty. It even seems for a while that Axel is gaslighting Tom to cover up his having committed the murders himself. But no, it’s Tom.

He’s developed a murderous, alternate personality–yup, you guessed it–Harry Warden. In a flashback, we see Tom dig up Harry, take the mask and, V from Vendetta-like, proceed to hack out his revenge upon the town. Ben gets his head spiked; Burke loses his jaw and Axel’s slutty jailbait mistress, Sarah’s employee Megan, gets sliced open in an alley.

Here’s where things get interesting–the film earned surprisingly good reviews overall, especially for a slasher. However, male fans of the usual-suspect kind have had a lot of problems with Tom (though they appreciate the Miner’s carnage). They like sleazy Axel better, and have praised Kerr Smith’s performance over Jensen Ackles’. They even like the ending where Sarah goes back to Axel.

Female fans, on the other hand, seem to feel somewhat differently. Some dislike Axel intensely and feel sorry for Tom, even seeing his actions as at least partially justified. The question is, why? Isn’t Tom/Harry just another mad-dog killer?

Well, not really. The Miner’s vengefulness has a distinctly moralistic tone. With two exceptions (that seem to fall under accidental or panic kills), he kills only people who directly did him wrong. We’re talking betrayal, scapegoating, abandonment to certain death, etc. Serious stuff that gets you the big red D as the next victim in a horror flick. His killings follow more the pattern of revenge flicks with downtrodden victim heroes like Carrie than films like Halloween (1978), where the protagonist is just a testosterone-y psychopath.

Much has been made of the resemblance of the film’s central “mirror” scene to Haute Tension, a film where the killer protag believes that she is really the hero. Early on, the Miner locks Tom in a cage before going to murder a miner who had previously attacked Tom in a bar. Before turning away, the Miner mirrors Tom’s actions inside the cage. Later, during the reveal, we see the Miner, unmasked to reveal Tom’s face, locking himself into the cage to give himself an alibi.

But the interesting thing about the Miner’s actions is that, unlike the Mother character in Psycho or the Trucker personality in Haute Tension, the Miner character does not attack Tom or blame his actions on Tom or try to make Tom the scapegoat. Far from it. The Miner is a protector figure who gets Tom the revenge Tom is unable to get for himself while also protecting him from the consequences. In this sense, he’s Tom’s id, his angry subconscious, thirsting for revenge. Even though Tom has, out of guilt, given up part of himself to the memory of a man he wronged and who died trying to murder him, that personality is benevolent toward Tom not malevolent. For women, this seems to work better than watching some ill-defined whackjob in fashionably ugly gear (like Jason of Friday the 13th‘s hockey mask) hack up people whose main crime is being A. dumb and B. in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Tom is trying to change the status quo. For the women of the town, the status quo sucks. Sarah is stuck managing her parents’ store and putting up with her cheating, verbally abusive husband. Irene is getting taped having sex by her slimeball trucker boyfriend. Megan, who’s barely legal, is sleeping with the town sheriff, who has no intention of leaving his wife for her even after she tells him she’s pregnant. Meanwhile, the mayor and the old sheriff got away with the vigilante murder of a mad-dog killer and buried him in an unmarked grave in the woods. Give these folks a yearly lottery and they’d be smack dab in Shirley Jackson territory.

Would selling the mine break the women of Harmony, PA out of their rotten situations? Hard to say. But killing off the male establishment certainly goes a long way toward shaking things up. We see the cage symbology brought home during the killer’s reveal montage: a shot of Tom holding up the mask from the grave, his face merging/becoming hidden behind the mask, fading into a shot of the Miner, maskless with Tom’s face, staring like a wild animal from inside the cage.

The women in the story have locked themselves inside similar cages to avoid dealing with their crappy lives. By breaking out of his cage and wreaking vengeance at night while renewing his relationship with her by day, Tom offers his ex-lover Sarah a way out. We should then sympathize with Sarah, who is given a difficult choice between cheating dirtbag and mad dog–rotten old and chaotic new. However, when she chooses loser Axel over crazy Tom, even forgiving the unrepentant Axel, she essentially refuses Tom’s offer and locks herself back into the cage of her own making. Pretty tough for the women in the audience to sympathize with that.

Another way that Tom appeals to women is that he’s clearly an Other character. He’s a scapegoat for the town’s crimes. He’s treated like a murderer even before the second set of killings starts because he is blamed for Harry Warden’s crimes. He’s also portrayed as mentally unstable, something that the other male characters use to negate his voice in a way that has discredited angry women as far back as Medea and Cassandra. The Miner is to Tom what the woman trapped behind the “bars” in the wall is to Jane in The Yellow Wallpaper: an alter ego who is a symbol of the protagonist’s madness but also her freedom. It’s interesting that a second Other character, African-American Deputy Martin (Edi Gathegi) briefly looks like a suspect despite having no motive, if only because the killings have the moralistic cast of an Other getting his/her revenge on the establishment and Martin looks like a MENSA scholar compared to his white colleagues. I’m happy to report though that, for once, the token black guy survives the film.

Still, Martin being the killer might have been better than his being a mere red herring. It seems that the horror film genre is not yet ready to progress beyond Candyman (1992), where an angry African-American spirit (Tony Todd) preys on a poor inner city community as a terrifying Bloody-Mary-like urban legend. Candyman is a tragic figure, being the ghost of an artist who was lynched by a white mob, and the ferociously imposing Todd makes full use of the role’s potential. But Candyman ultimately loses our sympathies because he preys on his own people rather than seeking to right the injustice against him, let alone their wrongs. Even in the first sequel, where we get a flashback showing the lynching and explaining that the motivation was his true-love marriage to a white woman, Candyman fails to win us over. Instead, he ultimately turns into a malignant lover toward the heroine and tries to kill her, much like Boris Karloff’s Im-ho-tep in The Mummy (1932).

Usually, this is where slashers lose female fans because slasher killers are so childishly and misogynistically psychopathic. But the Miner himself (surprisingly) seems to appeal to women in the audience. Women like the Miner. His costume is anonymous and intimidating. Anyone could be behind that mask, even an angry woman. The Miner is unsure and emotional in his attacks, while simultaneously brutal and no-nonsense. This combination appeals to women’s dark side as epitomized in stories like Euripides’ plays Medea (431 BCE) and The Bacchae (404 BCE), or that old joke about two men and a woman trying out for the job of CIA assassin.

Jensen Ackles is in the suit during several of the kill scene shots, the really personal ones from the looks of things. This explains why the Miner comes across as much more than a remorseless killing machine. He has a personality; he is vulnerable. A tragic irony for his victims is that, by doing what seems sensible–screaming and running and fighting back–they actually trigger his rage and ensure their own deaths. If they weren’t so freaked out by his appearance, they could probably talk him down. For example, after killing the truck driver and chasing Irene back into her room, the Miner hides from Selene in a closet, presumably so he won’t have to kill her. He struggles against larger opponents. Yet, when given the option of attacking a weaker, yet innocent, victim (a young, female cop), he instead chooses to go after a stronger one (Burke) who done him wrong. Even his killings of two innocents in the film appear to be panic kills that occur when he is taken by surprise, and his last kill is done to escape being caged again. There is no torture, no sadism in his killings à la torture porn like Hostel (2005) or Saw (2004). The Miner is about revenge and karmic justice, not fun.

This appeals more to women than to men. Despite being a lifelong horror fan, I’ve never gotten much into slashers. Both the killers and the protagonists are too unsympathetic, with a few exceptions like the classics Psycho (1960), with its little-boy-lost killer Norman Bates, and Halloween, with its sympathetic Final Girl protagonist. You can’t root for someone who is indiscriminately killing innocents out of revenge for something somebody else did (Friday the 13th from 1980) or crossed wires and sheer kicks (Halloween).

Even the killer in Valentine (2001), sometimes called a “chick slasher” flick, is ultimately not very sympathetic. He is taking direct revenge on some girls who humiliated him and ruined his life, a motive we can understand, but he’s still a creep. He lies to the Final Girl and makes a Bluebeard-like unilateral decision whether he will kill her or not. In other words, he’s just another malignant lover. Similarly, the killer in Heathers (1988) manipulates and bullies the Final Girl into participating in his crimes. When she finally balks, taking back control of her life both from the vicious clique she’s joined and him, he kills himself.

The killer in My Bloody Valentine 3D has been made powerless and disenfranchised by his insanity and by being scapegoated for the crimes of others. As Tom, he feels helpless to fight these betrayals. As the Miner, he takes back power and control and gets his revenge, but his emotions–hate and love–rule the Miner even as they rule Tom. This appears to make him a sympathetic character in a way that previous slasher hero/villains have not been. While certainly psychotic, he’s no psychopath.

He’s more like a western vigilante antihero (the ghostly protagonist of High Plains Drifter from 1973, for example) in his motivations and approach than the standard psychopath of a slasher flick. He attacks Sarah, but repeatedly fails to kill her because he still loves her. Just before the motel massacre, he shows affection toward Selene’s dog. Selene’s murder seems partly precipitated by her yelling at the dog, and partly by her opening the closet door where the Miner is hiding and freaking him out.

When he comes back to town, Tom only wants to sell the mine, but he later reconsiders when Sarah berates him for abandoning the town. He has feelings for others and can be persuaded to show mercy. Tom has no awareness of his murderous alter-ego, strongly and sincerely protesting his innocence. When the Harry personality finally reveals itself to him, Tom is devastated and broken–all those who persecuted him are proven right. Whether as Tom or as Harry, he has the audience’s sympathy. This makes the audience downright perky when Tom escapes the usual fate of slasher killers (captured or apparently killed) by both surviving and escaping his persecutors, albeit in the Harry personality.

So, even after Tom is revealed as the brutal killer of nine people, audience members still like him. Is this because the actor who plays him, Jensen Ackles, is good-looking? Maybe, except that this would not explain why the anonymous Miner character, often played by the same actor without the audience’s knowledge, also retains the audience’s sympathy. Nor does it explain why a more cold-blooded and less passionate killer like the one in Valentine, played by the fetchingly snarky David Boreanaz, is unsympathetic. And Tony Todd certainly doesn’t hurt the eyes, either, but you can’t really root for Candyman. So, there seems a bit more to this than a case of Bluebeard-fantasizing for a malignant lover type of male character. There is an actual reason to root for Tom/the Miner, to find his revenge killings and escape cathartic.

This does not make My Bloody Valentine 3D a great film. It hovers around the level of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), never quite rising to the levels of Halloween or Carrie, let alone Psycho. But for a film that is an unabashed throwback to the era of the ’80s slasher, this puppy’s pretty progressive. My Bloody Valentine 3D, with its sympathetic psycho and refusal to equate mental illness with evil, feels much like the Italian giallo horror films of the 1960s and ’70s, or Canadian proto-slasher Black Christmas (1974): an intermediate missing link hacking out in rough outline a possible future for slasher horror. Maybe we can take this ferociously basic part of the horror genre, which is essentially the kind of chilling tale that’s been told around campfires for tens of thousands of years, and move beyond the boring cliché of white-trash with hang-ups stalking lustful teens with no brains.

Now, if only they could give us a little more male skin and make the Final Girl less of an idiot in the sequel…

Paula R. Stiles is a forty-one-year-old American who has sold SF, fantasy and horror stories to Strange Horizons, the Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction, Writers of the Future and other markets. She also has co-written a mystery/SF novel, “Fraterfamilias”.

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