My Bloody Valentine and the history of horror in three dimensions.

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Jan. 16 2009 6:59 PM

I Heart 3-D

My Bloody Valentine and the history of horror in three dimensions.

My Bloody Valentine: 3-D wastes no time with its first eye-popping special effect: The organ flies out of the screen on the tip of a pickax, still tethered to its socket by a bundle of nerve fibers. It's an homage, perhaps, to the legendary eyeballing doled out in stereovision almost 30 years ago in Friday the 13th, Part III. ("Explainer" question: Does the optic nerve really have that much extra slack?) It's also a clear signal that the new film is less a throwback to the original My Bloody Valentine—a low-budget slasher pic released in standard format in 1981—than to the 3-D horror craze that began the following year.

MBV3D does break with some long-standing genre conventions. To start with, it violates the strict requirement that the third—and only the third!—installment of any horror series can be released in three dimensions. Thus the appearance, over a remarkable two-year stretch in the early 1980s, of threequelsJaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D, and Friday the 13th, Part III. More recent films—like the briefly three-dimensional A Nightmare on Elm Street 6—have already muddled this venerable tradition. A new crop of 3-D horror titles due out this year will erase that Part 3-in-3-D tradition altogether. Consider the upcoming Piranha 3-D (technically a remake of the 1978 original, not a follow-up to 1981's Piranha II: The Spawning) or the egregiously named summer blockbuster Final Destination 4: Death Trip 3D.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Still, it's remarkable how little has changed in three-dimensional horror in the last 25 years. If MBV3D is any guide, this new batch of 3-D films will adhere to the medium's central principle, a corollary to Chekhov's gun: If a stuffed marlin appears on a wall in the first act, it'd better be flying out of the screen by Act 3. Indeed, the Valentine killer's weapon of choice—a long and aerodynamic, two-pointed pickax—may be the most perfect instrument ever devised for the genre. His deranged-miner gasmask and headlamp add another stroke of gimmicky genius: An ominous beam of light extends into the audience whenever he turns his head.

I was surprised, and slightly embarrassed, to find myself ducking in my seat to avoid the pokes and splatters. But these cheap tricks have been scaring audiences since the early days of cinema. Gimmicky horror flicks were among the first 3-D films ever released in theaters. Third Dimensional Murder, from 1941, is a disjointed sequence of gags involving witches, skeletons, and feral people of color; for the climax, the Frankenstein monster climbs atop a building and drops one object after another onto the audience—a stone, a fiery log, a boulder, a vat of molten lead. In 1953, the Three Stooges released a 3-D horror-comedy short called Spooks, full of looming needles and protruding knives. (There's also a historic scene where Moe gives Shemp a three-dimensional, double-eye poke … directly into the camera.) Even the great House of Wax—praised everywhere for its delicate use of stereo effects—resorts to the crudest novelty in its memorable paddle-ball sequence. Aficionados of 3-D cinema have long been annoyed by these stunts, preferring the relative subtlety of, say, Miss Sadie Thompson, a musical romance starring Rita Hayworth. But I'm happy to report there's still a rich and communal joy in having a dismembered jawbone come hurtling at the audience.

The new My Bloody Valentine draws from a more recent lineage as well. By the 1970s, 3-D's Golden Age had given way to single-minded exploitation flicks, like Andy Warhol's Frankenstein—a strange, gore-soaked orgy of flying innards and necrophilic sex. ("To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gallbladder.") To honor that tradition, MBV3D director Patrick Lussier devotes at least 1,000 feet of film to the chase and eventual murder of a naked blonde running around in high heels. "We felt that we would shoot our wad with that," Lussier told MoviesOnline.ca. "She was going to be enough 'nakedity' for the whole film."

Despite all this nostalgia, marketers and critics alike have trumpeted the movie's fancy technology and "first-rate 3-D effects." But these are as much of a throwback as the rest of the movie. MBV3D is being projected using a modern system called "RealD," which uses alternating, high-speed video frames and circular polarized glasses to produce a stereo effect. The film industry had made every effort to promote the idea that RealD movies won't produce the headaches, nausea, and eye strain that plagued viewers of 3-D in earlier eras. Here's an argument against: I watched My Bloody Valentine: 3-D last night, and my eyes still feel sore. At one point during the movie, I nearly threw up—and it had nothing to do with the pried-open body cavities. (The film's inane advertising campaign says the movie is "actually 4D if you're wasted!," but I wouldn't recommend going to the theater tipsy.)

My nausea isn't really surprising. RealD is a somewhat fancier version of the systems that were used for 3-D movies in the 1950s (double-strip projection, with linear polarization) and very similar to the systems in place in the early 1980s (single-strip projection, with linear polarization). MBV3D will cause viewers a lot of discomfort not because of how it's projected but because of how it was shot: When it comes to 3-D, the more extreme the effect—i.e., the greater the perceived depth—the harder it is to watch. Patrick Lussier chose to fill his movie with dramatic and intense 3-D, well outside the comfort zone for most people. That makes for brief moments of excitement: a pickax chopping toward the camera, a body dragged through an open window. But in the quiet scenes, the unnecessary 3-D flourishes—a dog scampering toward the camera or a long view down the handrail of a bridge—are headache-inducing overkill. As a result, the movie also suffers from intermittent "ghosting," where certain objects in the background or foreground appear doubled on the screen.

That said, the movie achieves everything it sets out to do. My Bloody Valentine is more terrifying as a three-dimensional film than it ever would be flat. That's not because of the extreme 3-D sight gags—those are more entertaining than scary. Rather, the stereo camera adds a layer of dread that becomes downright suffocating when the action shifts underground. At one point, the gas-masked killer lurches down a mineshaft, smashing light bulbs with a pickax at each step. Nothing jumps off the screen, but through my polarized specs, it felt like the walls were closing in.

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