Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
You can have a big discussion about why we flock to scary movies and absorb the chilling bouquet of blood, sweat and tears that comes with our lust for horribly sweet sensations.
The fact that some of us like to be terrorized never ceases to perplex those who would sooner watch Jason chop his way through Friday the 13th as we’d have surgery without anesthesia. However, to horror filmmakers, it makes sense because terror is arguably the finest emotion to them.
Blumhouse Productions knows this all too well. The studio has been supplying nightmare fuel for well over a decade now, with films like Paranormal Activity and Get Out attached to its name. In addition to the studio’s feature films, Blumhouse has dipped its toes in the bloodbath of television and streaming platforms.
In 2018, the studio partnered with Hulu to fashion a monthly horror anthology series, Into the Dark. Each month Blumhouse produces a feature-length installment that is inspired by a holiday or seasonal event. With it being the season of love, it’s only natural that Blumhouse extended its killing calendar to Valentine’s Day with an all-new vision.
Writer-director Maggie Levin enters Into the Dark this month with her feature film debut, My Valentine. Rather than dust off an established concept in the series — such as last year’s Down, which centered on two co-workers trapped in an elevator over Valentine’s Day weekend — Levin delves into a complex story of fame and identity that addresses issues like empowerment of abuse victims and the toxic effects of social media.
Levin has a background in directing music videos and short films, some of which also have analyzed the struggle of stardom and the nightmarish setting of a nightclub. (See her 360/VR short film “Vain: This Party Sucks” for a taste.) In many ways, My Valentine is an accumulation of her storytelling abilities and strengths.
“[My experience in VR and music videos] was a huge influence for this movie, in particular,” Levin said. “When I got started on this project, I was excited and probably not nearly as afraid as I would have been under normal feature filmmaking circumstances because I knew it was going to call on all the skill sets that I’ve been developing for the past 10 years. I knew that I was going to reach a day [during the production] that was full of making music videos and dancing in costumes — just deeply in my comfort zone. It’s a kitchen sink movie.”
My Valentine follows Valentine Fawkes (Glow’s Britt Baron), a singer-songwriter who is confronted by her former abusive boyfriend and band manager, Royal (Benedict Samuel), during the after-hours of a small venue concert performance. The pop singer’s songs and artistic identity have been stolen by her ex and brazenly placed upon his next protege, Trezzure (Anna Lore). When everyone finds each other in the club, it’s met with inevitable violence.
“The trajectory of making this movie has followed a trajectory of personal empowerment and understanding and really learning how to be my own person. Those key things ran on the same track. Any project that was meaningful to me in my life, I used my whole self up in pursuit of it,” Levin said. “That is absolutely what I did on My Valentine, and I feel that I have come out the other side more grown up and excited about the next phase of my filmmaking career.”
Levin’s themes are some of the most complex of the series. My Valentine examines true toxic masculinity through the genre filter. It shows women not only as possessions of men in positions of power but also as transposable ones. The material makes you think about ways to not to lose your sense of self.
“I’m just learning how to do just that. A lot of the sentiments expressed in the podcast [that plays throughout the film] are the very self-help and therapeutic lessons that I am trying to learn right now. We learn how to be in the world through our relationships with other people. It’s so easy to marry your identity to the whims of the person you love,” Levin said. “If you have been raised to be a people-pleaser or approval-seeker, it’s so vital that you start to put a separation between what somebody else wants and what you want. I think it takes a while to figure that out.”
Mother Teresa once said that some people come into our life as blessings while others come as lessons. It’s a significant part of human development to surround yourself with different people to get to know your own mindset, personality and desires. Levin’s film is plucked from this thinking.
“I still find myself in situations where I pause: ‘Am I doing this for me or am I doing this because it’ll make that person like me?’ I think our very human need to be liked comes up over and over again in our lives. So, just putting that moment of pause between input and impulse is essential,” Levin said.
Levin uses a unique visual aesthetic to decorate these themes, an artistic choice that very much has its finger on the pulse of trends, such as Instagram video filters and a multiscreen presentation. Levin uses quick cuts, canted camera angles and a neon color palette to spice up her cinematic language.
“It was one of the biggest and most important challenges of my career [to find that balance of style]. With a movie so flashy like this, you want a normal amount of preproduction and development time to storyboard everything. We didn’t have that, and only had a couple of weeks of prep,” Levin said. ”We had to find a run-and-gun way to make that happen. The cinematographer, Ana M. Amortegui, and I worked on a number of those predetermined split-screen memory sequences and how those flashbacks would fit together.”
Levin and her editorial team, Yang Hua Hu and Andrew Wesman, discovered some of their stylistic choices on the job. They took a more in-depth look at the scope of the film and asked how they were going to further deliver on the promise of the premise.
“During the movie’s opening, we wanted it to be flashy and bright by featuring a message board and a social media and internet troll sequence. The glitter filters and halos were specific social media components that were incorporated later on that punched up the story’s effect,” Levin said.
Debatably, the best kinds of films are a seamless marriage of style, form and content. Each of these storytelling components had to work in tandem in My Valentine.
“You can feel when the style is just present for style’s sake and when your style is being used as a tool to really tell your story. The intent with My Valentine, from the very beginning, was to fit this series of characters in a world that was very heightened and existed in a music video-like, fantastical reality. Yet, we needed to keep the performances and the emotional through-line of the piece very grounded and real. The big bloody murder is notwithstanding,” Levin said, joking.
Working in the horror genre has imparted a lot of filmmaking wisdom. Levin said what’s valuable about horror is that you can run headfirst into what scares you, communicate it to its most extreme and find real catharsis. My Valentine tackles so many areas Levin said she’s afraid of, but it’s given her a greater understanding and made her better equipped for her future.
“There’s a thing in other mammals’ process that enables them to fully and physically experience a trauma. They go through it and drop it, and human beings don’t have that. That’s why we get PTSD and hang on to these experiences because we’re not allowed to move through an entire trauma physically,” Levin said. “So, in a way, to make a horror movie and plunge into your fear, you come out as your own final girl. It’s worth its weight in therapy gold.”
Into the Dark: My Valentine is now available to stream on Hulu.