'80s slasher films, 1980s films, Alf Humphreys, Canadian films, Carl Marotte, cinema, Cynthia Dale, Don Francks, film reviews, films, Friday the 13th, George Mihalka, Gina Dick, gory films, Halloween, Harry Warden, heavily-edited, Helene Udy, horror, horror films, horror movies, Jack Van Evera, John Beaird, John McDermott, Keith Knight, Larry Reynolds, Lori Hallier, love triangle, masked killers, miners, mining disaster, Movies, My Bloody Valentine, Neil Affleck, Patricia Hamilton, Paul Kelman, pickaxe, psycho killers, Rob Stein, Rodney Gibbons, Sean Cunningham, set in Canada, slasher films, Stephen A. Miller, Terry Waterland, Tom Kovacs, Valentine, Valentine's Day
While most folks probably feel that the insane killers are the determining factor in slasher films, I’d wager to say that there’s another factor that’s just as prominent and important: those kids just don’t listen. Time and time again, the youthful fodder in slasher films are given a handy set of rules to remember (“Don’t go in the woods,” “Don’t go in the cabin,” “Don’t have sex,” “Don’t look in the basement,” “Don’t split up,” “Don’t turn your back on it,” “Don’t feed it after midnight”) and, time after time, they just blow a raspberry and do their own thing. Doesn’t matter how many crotchety old men, sinister gypsies or age-old legends get thrown in their faces: these kids are here to party…and, of course, die.
The “rule” that the kids break (and pay for) in Canadian slasher classic My Bloody Valentine (1981) is the same one that Sir Kevin Bacon would rail against a scant three years later in the tap-dancing epic Footloose (1984): they just wanna dance, dammit, and they could give a hoot what any old psycho killers say. When the psycho killer in question just might be the pickaxe-wielding, cannibalistic and Valentine’s Day-hating sole survivor of a mining disaster, however, well…maybe the kids really should have listened.
20 years ago, in the town of Valentine’s Bluff, negligent mining officials paid more attention to the rockin’ Valentine’s Day dance than the mine and the resulting cave-in produced only one survivor, Harry Warden, who would proceed to murder the offending officials with his pickaxe. Leaving behind bloody heart-shaped boxes, Harry would also leave a parting directive: no more Valentine’s dances, ever. After heeding the maniac’s orders for two decades, the town’s young folks decide to throw caution to the wind and get their boogie on. The one guy not invited to the party? Harry Warden. Turns out ol’ Harry’s the kinda guy who doesn’t need an invitation, however: when he gets wind of the planned bash, the malevolent miner takes his weapon of choice out of retirement and starts to cut a (very) bloody swath through the unknowing town.
As the bodies pile up behind the scenes, a love triangle takes center-stage: T.J (Paul Kelman), the wayward son of the town’s mayor/mine owner, has returned home and attempted to rekindle his romance with Sarah (Lori Hallier), the girl he left behind. Only problem is, Sarah has hooked up with T.J.’s former best friend, Axel (Neil Affleck), a pompous, abusive lout who doesn’t take kindly to his ex-bestie popping up in the picture. As the two alpha males butt heads and strut around, Sarah and her friends decide to take the party into the mine, proper. Led by cheerful Hollis (Keith Knight) and goofball Howard (Alf Humphreys), the ladies descend into an area of the mine that’s been out of commission since the days of Harry Warden. As they’ll come to find, however, not all old, dead things stay buried…and, sometimes, the killer you don’t know is far scarier than the one you do.
George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine fits neatly within the ’80s slasher boom, coming less than a year after Sean Cunningham would scare us out of the summer camp with his now iconic Friday the 13th (1980), right in the middle of a rather impressive glut of like-minded films. While many (most?) of the ’80s slasher boom would end up being rather forgettable carbon-copies of better films, there were plenty of them that stood out on their own due to various degrees of individuality: My Bloody Valentine certainly stands proud with these.
While the acting is the same kind of thing fans of the subgenre should know to expect (in some places, it’s so broad as to approximate a ’50s beach movie), the performers are all personable and none of them, including Humphrey’s “oh so zany” Howard, ever wear out their welcome. While the film’s central love triangle ends up being rather overheated and corny, it does provide a reasonable measure of dramatic tension, along with leading to the inevitable moment where the feuding beaus must join forces to save their (shared) beloved. The adults in the film, namely Don Francks’ Chief Newby and Larry Reynolds’ Mayor Hanniger, are all largely ineffectual but, then again, that’s also par for the course with the majority of ’80s slasher films, as is the de rigueur first-person POV shots and heavy breathing on the soundtrack.
Atmosphere-wise, Mihalka and crew make the very best of their mine location, providing plenty of suitably creepy shots and tense moments, highlighted by the showstopper where the masked miner slowly strides down a tunnel, smashing lit bulbs with his pickaxe: it’s a truly glorious moment and one that’s been replicated several times in the 30+ years since it (presumably) creeped the living shit out of audiences. Speaking of the miner: all slasher films live and die by their main creepazoid and My Bloody Valentine’s villain is one of the greats. Silent, hulking and prone to imaginative kills, ala Jason, the miner is a simple but massively effective construct: more’s the pity that this (and the 2011 remake) were his only moments in the sun (so to speak).
Despite being hailed as a minor classic within the subgenre, My Bloody Valentine is equally notorious as being one of the most heavily edited films of the era. Whether due to societal issues of the time, an increased focus on censorship or the blowback from other violent films, the vast majority of the film’s creative kills are edited almost to the point of nonexistence: in an ironic twist, My Bloody Valentine is both one of the most AND least gory of the ’80s slasher boom. While I detest censorship, in general, the edited version of Mihalka’s film ends up being its own curious kind of beast: with the geekshow factor of the excessively violent kills removed, leaving only snippets of the aftermath, the focus is put back on the actual film. As such, the edited version of My Bloody Valentine is a rather lame gore flick (the worst shot in the edited version is the seconds-long image of Mabel’s burned body) but it’s actually a very effective suspense/horror film, similar to the first Friday the 13th or, to a much lesser extent, Hooper’s unbeatable Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
While a restored version of the film from several years back added in some of the censored gore, the version that most folks will probably see is the more readily available edited version. After seeing both, I still find myself leaning towards the edited one a little more, perhaps because the “restored” version is still edited: it’s kind of like cleaning off one spot of a filthy window while leaving the rest dirty. At the very least, the fully edited version has a sense of unity that’s less jarring than the re-added footage, even though some of the setpieces are so gloriously loony as to warrant the added attention (the scene where Helene Udy’s Sylvia gets turned into a human water faucet manages to handily one-up the meat hook scene in TCM, while recalling some of the more gonzo giallos).
As a big proponent of film history and its more unsung chapters, I’ve always enjoyed My Bloody Valentine, even if it’s nowhere near the creme de la creme of the movement. The film is fast-paced, fun and endlessly inventive, however, even if it occasionally winks so hard in the direction of Cunningham’s originator that it gets a severe eye cramp (in particular, the character of Jack Van Evera’s Happy is just Walt Gorney’s Crazy Ralph with a different Social Security number). I’m willing to wager that most fans of slasher films (or just horror films, in general) will already be familiar with this little export from America’s Northern neighbors. If not, I heartily suggest rectifying that little omission: in order to know where horror is going, you have to know where it was. Back in the dawning years of the ’80s, this is where horror was. If your only experience with holiday-themed horror is John Carpenter’s pumpkin king, set a date with My Bloody Valentine next February: the movie has a lot of heart…and it just might win yours.