Looking good but lacking much in the way of personality or gray matter — rather like its characters — “Valentine” is a straightforward slasher pic that’s acceptably scary until a weak finale. Prospect of fave babe Denise Richards being chased around by the usual very-big-knife-wielding maniac will no doubt click bigtime with multiplexers this week, before “Hannibal” renders it a distant second priority. Ancillary biz should be brisk.
Opening credits are intercut with blunt flashbacks to a sixth grade Valentine’s Day dance at which one Jeremy Melton, the class geek replete with spectacles and overbite, is humiliated by several girls, then beaten by boys. (He’s also doused with red punch, a la Carrie White’s pig-blood bath.)
Cut to 13 years later, as med-school student Shelly (Katherine Heigl, of TV series “Roswell”) ditches an obnoxious blind date to do some late-night cadaver dissecting. Needless to say, she gets an awful surprise, leading to funeral at which longtime friends Kate (Marley Shelton), Paige (Richards), Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw) and Lily (Jessica Cauffiel) ponder how their childhood classmate met such an end.
The four young women start receiving nasty valentine cards signed by a mysterious “J.M.,” though in a typical leap of (il-) logic they neglect to inform police detective Vaughn (Fulvio Cecere). He has suspicions about their various boyfriends and male acquaintances, each of whom does his best to look highly suspect.
Dorothy, a rich girl insecure about her attractiveness (less-than-reed-thin status here being enough to qualify as “the fat one”), has opened home and wallet to leeching Campbell (Daniel Cosgrove), whose alleged dot.com business may well be a con man’s ruse. Sugary-sweet Kate is trying to maintain distance from beau Adam (David Boreanaz) until he’s got his alcohol problem under control.
Jaded vamp Paige has probably already scorched half the straight men in San Francisco. Lily seems to magnetize Mr. Wrongs, latest being a sleazy multimedia artist (Johnny Whitworth). At his gallery opening, she gets lost in a “video maze,” providing the Cupid-masked slayer with another macabre setting for bagging Victim #2.
Unaware of this, Kate, Dorothy and Paige survive numerous false scares to party hearty at the latter’s Pacific Heights mansion, with lots of empty rooms where no one can hear you scream.
Director Jamie Blanks (“Urban Legend”) does a nice job dragging out the what’s-behind-that-corner setpieces, their tension gracefully heightened by lenser Rick Bota’s prowling ‘Scope camera. Yet two best such segs (featuring Hedy Burress as a party crasher recently scorned by Campbell, and the excessively aerobicized Richards preening in a hot tub) unfortunately arrive before the “real” climax, which by contrast is at once overblown, predictable and improbable. Revelation of killer’s I.D. suffers further from fact that thesp in question looks about 10 years older than plot logic requires.
A few small in-jokes aside (one of Boreanaz’s TV “Angel” role), “Valentine” eschews “Scream”-style snarkiness for straight suspense that’s largely effective in the moment. But script, boiled down by four credited scribes from Tom Savage’s novel, lacks the narrative ingenuity or character development required to make any lingering impression. Cast of cuties — even those Mr. Wrongs look scrumpdillicious — is heavy on female blondeage, recalling the recent pose fest “Coyote Ugly.” Perfs match material’s level of just-adequacy.
Alleged San Francisco setting (production was actually shot in Vancouver) is a no-show. De rigeur original soundtrack package of rap-metallish tracks is seldom heard from onscreen, with apt emphasis on Don Davis’ creepy instrumental score instead. Design and tech contribs are slick; by genre standards, gore quotient is moderate.