MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981)
Synopsis: Outside Valentine Bluffs, a shift at the mine ends. Eager to blow off steam, the miners head for town, where preparations for the upcoming Valentine’s Day dance are in full swing. A number of the miners meet up with their girlfriends at the Union Hall, where the dance is to be held. Outside, Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) praises the head organiser, Mabel Osborne (Patricia Hamilton), for her hard work, but suggests that the fact that this is the town’s first dance for twenty years not be emphasised. Approaching the hall, the Mayor and Mabel are horrified when a young man staggers through the door, his head split open….but the “victim”, Howard Landers (Alf Humphreys), soon starts laughing. With the arrival of his father, T.J. Hanniger (Paul Kelman) immediately leaves the hall. Another of the miners, Axel Palmer (Neil Affleck), observes that T.J. isn’t exactly thrilled to be back in town. The Mayor retorts angrily that it isn’t his fault that T.J.’s attempt to make it on his own failed so dismally; adding that now he is back, he’ll work in the mine whether he likes it or not. As the Mayor and Chief of Police Jake Newby (Don Francks) head out to attend a meeting, Howard runs after them, handing the Mayor a heart-shaped candy-box and explaining that it was found at the hall when everyone arrived. Out on the road in the Chief’s car, the Mayor opens the box. Inside is an anonymous note, warning him to “remember what happened”. Below that, concealed in tissue paper, is a human heart. The Mayor cries out in horror that it can’t be happening again, it can’t…. That night, at the local watering-hole, bartender ‘Happy’ (Jack Van Evera) regales everyone with the story of the town’s last Valentine’s dance. Twenty years earlier, two mine supervisors, eager to get to the party, left work without checking the methane levels below ground. An explosion occurred, trapping five miners. Six weeks later they were dug out, one of them, Harry Warden (Peter Cowper), still alive but totally insane, having resorted to cannibalism to survive. Harry was institutionalised, but broke out a year later and returned to town, murdering the two supervisors and cutting out their hearts, which were left in candy-boxes at the dance, along with a warning that no more dances were ever to be held. This warning was heeded….until this year. Happy also insists that every year since the tragedy, on Valentine’s Day, Harry has returned to town, clad in full mining regalia and looking for someone to kill. The bar customers scoff at Happy’s grim tale. As the evening progresses, tensions mount between T.J. and Axel over the latter’s girlfriend, Sarah (Lori Hallier), who went with T.J. before his abrupt departure from town. Chief Newby is horrified to learn that the State asylum cannot verify the whereabouts of Harry Warden. Meanwhile, at her laundromat, Mabel finds a heart-shaped candy-box on a table; while outside, a figure in mining gear stands watching her….
Comments: Well, well, well…. Back when I reviewed Halloween II, I made some attempt to define the difference between “the horror movie” and “the slasher movie”. I also made the comment that while I had seen some effective slashers, I had yet to see one that I felt qualified as a good film; and while I’m not necessarily prepared to stick my neck out quite so far as to claim that My Bloody Valentine is a good film, I am prepared to say this: it’s….not bad. I am aware, however, and you should be too, that this review is being written in a biased state of mind. I have a web DVD rental subscription, and the guy who supplies my films likes to play little jokes, often sending discs paired up by either real or spurious connections. So when I was due to receive My Bloody Valentine, it was sent off in partnership with – what else? – Valentine. I chose to watch the newer film first; and since Valentine could be fairly described as a ninety-minute summary of everything that is wrong with the contemporary horror movie, this viewing order had the effect of throwing My Bloody Valentine’s modest virtues into rather startling relief.
It is to be supposed that Paramount, being a respectable studio and all, experienced a few qualms when it released Friday The 13th in May of 1980; certainly the company’s temerity saw it on the receiving end of a wave of moral outrage. However, there’s nothing like the colour of green for soothing away any inconvenient scruples. Not only did Sean Cunningham’s calculated exercise in blood-letting generate the kind of profits that would cure a studio executive of anything short of an arrow through the base of the throat, but it had the side-effect of unleashing a positive deluge of imitations. While a few of the new batch of horrors strove for a little originality, most of them – as, indeed, is still the case today – chose simply to pick up the Friday The 13th formula and run with it: a traumatic event, an anniversary, a killer on the loose, a last-minute unmasking….nothing could be simpler. The six months following Friday The 13’s release saw Terror Train, Prom Night, He Knows You’re Alone and You Better Watch Out hit the cinemas. What a time to be alive, hey? Paramount, possibly indignant at seeing its cash-cow being milked by everyone but itself (so much for moral qualms), retaliated with the inevitable Friday The 13th Part 2, and with My Bloody Valentine. The two films have more in common than just their model: both were the victims of the punitive mode of censorship to which the slasher film phenomenon had given birth; both had their murder scenes substantially trimmed before gaining the required ‘R’ rating. (And both, at least in the US, remain unrestored to this day. Word is that the film-makers still retain the cut footage from My Bloody Valentine, and offered it to Paramount when the film was slated for DVD release. As it did for the F13 movies – as it is doing, unbelievably, for the upcoming F13 box set – the studio chose to put out the shortened version.) When the two films are looked at side by side, it is clear that the MPAA’s activities had a less detrimental effect upon My Bloody Valentine. Don’t get me wrong: the film is just as emasculated as F13:2; however, the editing job done on My Bloody Valentine wasn’t quite so cack-handed, so that you feel the cuts a bit less jarringly. But the real difference between the two is more fundamental than that. Despite the fact that F13:2 is my favourite of the franchise, as far as I have got with it, I have to concede that My Bloody Valentine is simply a better film.
So, what exactly do I like about My Bloody Valentine? Well, first off, there’s the fact that it actually has something resembling a legitimate story. It is standard practice, of course, to judge a slasher film by its kill-scenes, but personally I’ve always felt that it is the material surrounding the murders by which such a film stands or falls. What’s the point of fabulously staged murders if you’ve put the audience to sleep before it gets to them? So I can say this for My Bloody Valentine: I was able to sit through its non-kill material without yawning, fidgeting, fast-forwarding, or flicking through the cable program to see what else I could have been watching. (Ooh! Burnt Offerings!) I developed no particularly passionate hatred of any of the characters – not even of the Odious Comic Relief. And I didn’t once bellow, “Oh, will you GET ON WITH IT!!” – meaning, I suppose, that the murders are well-timed. The film has, I feel, two genuine distinctions. One is its setting. One of the features of film-making from the seventies and early eighties, one that is particularly noticeable in the horror movies of the time – and all the more so when you compare them to the high-gloss emptiness of today – is a certain grittiness. This may have been intentional, or a lucky accident of the film stock of the time; either way, it lends character to the productions. My Bloody Valentine not only has this rough-edged feel to its credit, but builds on it by having been shot on location. Valentine Bluffs – “The Little Town With The Big Heart” – is real in a way that you rarely encounter in a film of this kind, and this lends the production an unusual degree of credibility. Then, too, the story is set in February; and throughout, there is a palpable chill in the air. (Sorry, gang – no skinny-dipping in this one! In fact, amazingly, there’s no nudity at all…!) The small mining community sits in a windswept, barren region of Canada; when T.J. convinces Sarah to come with him to “their place”, this is no romantic nook, but a rocky shore on a fairly forbidding stretch of coastline, the metal towers of the mine clear in the background. The town itself seems somehow….huddled, being made up of small, basically designed buildings and people living inescapably regulated lives. The whole community revolves around its mine. Every man in the town, it seems, bar the Chief of Police, is reliant upon it for his living; and though they might dream of flight, the experiences of T.J. demonstrate only too clearly that such things are easier imagined than done. It is perfectly believable that in such a place, something as seemingly mundane as a Valentine’s Day dance could assume an unnatural degree of importance. Then, too, the preparations for the dance that we see are almost touchingly realistic: nothing over the top here, just crepe paper streamers and cut-out paper hearts, all whipped about by the icy wind that never ceases to buffet the small town.
The other thing that My Bloody Valentine does really well, perhaps as well as any of the “occasion” slasher movies (although admittedly, there is a whole morass of Christmas horrors out there into which I’ve yet to dip so much as a toe), is exploit its premise. In this, there is no doubt that it manages to outdo its model. There is no real reason, after all, why Friday The 13th should be called “Friday The 13th”, except to sound ominous; it could just as well have been called Monday The 17th, or Wednesday The 28th, for all the difference it would have made to the action of the film. My Bloody Valentine, on the other hand, after flicking a wink at its predecessor – its Valentine’s Day falls upon a Saturday, meaning that some of its killings take place on Friday the 13th – has an absolute field day corrupting and undermining this most dubious of “holidays”. (Thus earning itself an enduring place in the affections of anyone disgusted by the crass commercialism of a day supposedly about disinterested emotion, sick of singularity being treated like it was some kind of shameful disease, or both.) In the early section of the film, Valentine Bluffs is awash with red: red love hearts, red streamers, red balloons, red-fringed banners. The town is awash with red in the latter part of the film, too, but it’s a rather different red. Heart-shaped boxes abound, containing not candy, but humans hearts, these accompanied by hilarious doggerel verses that are, let’s face it, no worse than your average Hallmark greeting. (Mabel’s Roses are red/Violets are blue/One is dead/And so are you! is kind of cute, but it’s hard to go past everyone’s laureate standard favourite: It happened once/It happened twice/Cancel the dance/Or it’ll happen thrice!) And of course, the film itself is centred upon a love triangle….which ends when the girl caught between two men gets fed up with their asinine behaviour, and dumps the pair of them. Ain’t love grand? Unsurprisingly under the circumstances, the ramifications of this tangled love affair prove to have an influence on the outcome of the story.
Nor should we overlook the fact that the killings in My Bloody Valentine are triggered in the first place by a heart – a tattoo heart that makes its appearance in the film’s unforgettable opening sequence. Unlike many slashers, My Bloody Valentine chose not to open with the inevitable flashback sequence that “explains” its action. Instead, it begins abruptly with the unexpected sight of two people in mining gear making their way through an ill-lit tunnel. One of the two begins to undress….revealing herself to be a blonde woman of indeterminate age, with the inflammatory tattoo positioned on the curve of her left breast. Her companion declining to shed his gear, the woman begins fondling his air-hose (no, really….), an activity which comes to an abrupt end when our mystery man slams her backwards onto the point of his pick, embedded in the wooden wall behind the pair of them. Cue title card. The flashback scene does eventually happen, and it’s a beauty – in fact, it’s the highlight of the film. This is the other creditable thing about My Bloody Valentine: it’s not set in a mining town just for the heck of it, it makes full use of its background. We learn early in the film that there hasn’t been a Valentine’s dance in Valentine Bluffs for twenty years, and it is not much longer before we learn why.
As do all good slashers, My Bloody Valentine comes complete with its very own Voice Of Doom: in this case, a grim-visaged bartender going by the unlikely sobriquet of Happy. The miners and their girls spend the evening at the local bar (at which point we discover that My Bloody Valentine was not only shot in Canada, as so many slashers of this era were, but also set there – or so we infer from the tide of Moosehead beer that regularly threatens to engulf the production). As they discuss the upcoming dance, they are interrupted by Happy, who warns them---no, not that they are, “Doomed! Doomed!”, but rather that, “This town is accursed!” The tale of Harry Warden follows, and we listen to the voice of Happy as his words overlay a nearly wordless and soundless depiction of the mining tragedy and the murders that altered the town forever. This is a wonderful sequence, surreal and creepy and funny all at once. Happy goes on to warn his scoffing audience that Harry still lurks around Valentine Bluffs, returning every Valentine’s Day to check that no-one has violated his warning that no more dances should ever be held – which, this year, someone has. Happy’s recital is illustrated with shots of the mysterious Harry, dressed in his work gear and with his pickaxe dripping blood. Whether or not the film’s killer actually is Harry, well, that remains to be seen; but sure enough, it is someone who roams the night in full mining regalia: an unusually realistic yet wholly intimidating figure. The last third of My Bloody Valentine takes place within the mine itself, a number of the murder scenes lit only by the spotlight of the killer’s helmet, his victims frozen with terror like deer caught in headlights. If we feel no more for the victims here than we do in any other slasher, it is nevertheless the case that these dark and claustrophobic tunnels lend an uncommon tension to the final stalk-and-kill sequence.
This sequence also highlights something else about My Bloody Valentine that helps to set it aside from the mass of the era’s slashers, and which may in fact be the reason why the film still seems to be held in such affection. Although superficially as formulaic as any of its brethren, My Bloody Valentine manages, on more than one occasion, to spring a surprise. Perhaps the biggest of these is the script’s abandonment of what, even by as early as mid-1981, were the rules of the slasher film: My Bloody Valentine has no Final Girl. Oh, there’s a girl amongst those who last the longest against the pickaxe of the killer, sure enough, but the story never becomes the kind of one-on-one confrontation that even at this stage of the game, the audience had surely come to expect. Then, too, there is the killer’s choice of victims. While it’s true that we never learn what, exactly, the woman of the prologue did to bring her fate upon herself, the reasoning behind the other killings is clear enough. Mabel Osborne gets it for having the temerity to revive the Valentine’s dance; the others, for similarly ignoring all warnings that no Valentine’s party is to be held – and for invading the mines. There seems no concern on the part of the killer with the gender of his victims, and the film as a whole is refreshingly free of the have-sex-and-die cliché that, unwittingly or not, taints so many slasher films. Two sets of couples do get theirs after having snuck away from the party, true (and the ol’ two-backed shish kebab makes another appearance here, although in such a cut form that you can actually miss it!), but there is a sense that they were as much seeking a little time alone together as an opportunity for carnality. (Perhaps I can best praise My Bloody Valentine’s attempts to break free of the mould by saying that when these scenes did finally make an appearance, I was a little disappointed….) As for the rest of it, My Bloody Valentine boasts some imaginative kills, like the shower-head impalement, and a couple of fabulous gross-out moments (one involving a candy-box heart and a pack of roving dogs, the other a pot of boiling frankfurters) – while it is almost an hour into the film before any of the characters do anything that is recognisably slasher-film-stupid. That must be some kind of record, surely?
But yes, it is true that My Bloody Valentine finally succumbs to the lure of the moronic contrivance – although even this is surrounded by a couple of moments of unusual common sense. It speaks volumes for the sheer idiocy of slasher films generally that a single sensible action by a character in one of them could catch the attention so firmly, but so it is in My Bloody Valentine. When human hearts start turning up in candy-boxes, they are accompanied by warnings that the Valentine’s dance must be cancelled – or else. So the Mayor and the Chief of Police cancel the dance.
I’ll just say that again, shall I, to give it a chance to sink in? The authorities are warned that if they don’t cancel the dance, more people will die. So they cancel it.
Yes, yes. I know, I know. Take a couple of deep breaths: it helps.
Of course, while doing the cancelling, Chief Newby naturally makes the decision to conceal the real reason, so that they don’t “end up with a hell of a panic on our hands”. Do people in authority really conceal murders as often as they do in the movies, I wonder? – and how exactly would you go about doing it? Particularly in a town this small. Anyway--- Contemplating the fact that Harry Warden may actually have made good his long-standing threat, the Chief justifies the cancellation by calling it a mark of respect for Mabel Osborne, whose death he puts down to “a heart attack” – which it was, I guess, in a sense. Unfortunately, this explanation leaves the town’s young adults disinclined to listen. They’re sorry enough about Mabel, but they don’t see why they should miss out on their party, particularly when it’s the first to be held in so many years. So they decide to have a party of their own. This is perhaps the time to correct a common misconception about My Bloody Valentine: I’ve seen a number of reviews that insist that the characters hold their party in the mine; when in fact they hold it in the recreation room at the mine, which is rather different. Of course, those of us watching recognise that the killer has just been issued with an invitation to the dance, so to speak; but in the characters’ defence, they don’t know there’s a killer around. So we can forgive them for this, if not for what happens next: half a dozen or so of the party-goers decide to take a ride down into the mine. The supposed motivation for this (other than the copious quantities of Moosehead that have been consumed) is the desire of one of the girls, Patty, to take her friend Sarah’s mind off her romantic troubles – because nothing says “fun” like a midnight trip into a coal mine, right? (We learn at this stage that there is a blanket ban on women in the mine. One on morons would have been more to the point.) Meanwhile, above ground, the killer has been busy. The discovery of the first wave of bodies follows, with the characters again doing something you wouldn’t expect: they call the cops, and get the hell out of there – all except for T.J. and Axel who, hearing that some of their friends, Sarah included, are down in the mine, put aside their differences and go to the rescue, only to end up trapped down there as the result of sabotage…. The final section of My Bloody Valentine is, as I have indicated, quite a lot of gruesome fun, even in its neutered form. The film culminates with the revelation of the killer’s identity, and with a ridiculously brief, almost perfunctory flashback that “explains” the killing spree, before the killer himself vanishes into the darkness of the mines, joining Harry Warden in the realms of legend….
Although generally less afflicted by “Huh!?” moments than many of its comrades, My Bloody Valentine doesn’t quite manage to avoid this common slasher film complaint. Along with the usual problems – Offscreen Teleportation©, elaborate “find the body” set-ups in situations that the killer couldn’t possibly have predicted – the main hiccup is surely the content of the defining flashback, in which Harry Warden returns to town a year after his descent into madness to find the two supervisors who were responsible for the tragedy still occupying the same positions – rather than, say, serving a lengthy stretch for manslaughter. Hard to believe that any mining community could be quite so forgiving of criminal negligence ending in multiple fatalities. Then we have the handling of the “legend” of Harry. Happy’s ominous recital in the bar is met with guffaws of laughter and significant taps of the forehead, a strange reaction considering that he is describing something that not only demonstrably happened within the lifetime of every character in the film, but which must surely have been a defining event in the history of this small town. I suppose we might infer that the laughter is directed only at Happy’s insistence that Harry returns to town each year on Valentine’s Day; but still, it seems an unlikely reaction from a group of miners towards the description of a mining accident caused by the carelessness of senior staff. Where My Bloody Valentine really trips itself, though, is in ultimately revealing that the killer has a connection to those events of twenty years ago. Now, while no-one is aware that this particular person is the killer, they must know of that connection – yet no-one hesitates to tell the tale, to ridicule the tale, in front of him! Of course, the film-makers couldn’t afford to have the killer react to any of this – and the people who do react are very clearly our red herrings – but to have him guffawing away with the crowd is a little bit extreme. However, most of this is only apparent after the event.
Reading back over what I’ve written, I feel as if I’m coming across as a little too enthusiastic over My Bloody Valentine. Still, that’s the thing about reviewing slasher movies, isn’t it? – you do tend to lower the bar. But I think it is true that this film is rather better than average. The writing isn’t brilliant, and nor is the acting, but the work is competent all round; a number of the cast members have gone on to successful if not brilliant careers. (That said, the surprise package is Neil Affleck, who ended up directing episodes of The Simpsons and The Family Guy.) I particularly like some of the by-play between the characters of T.J. and Axel. If the whole love-triangle set-up is too familiar to be interesting, there are a scattering of effective moments when the two young men, briefly forgetting that they hate each other’s guts, behave towards one another like the close friends they clearly were before everything went wrong. Paul Kelman (who looks unnervingly like the love-child of Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell) also does well in the scene in which T.J. must explain himself to Sarah, conveying the numbing sense of humiliation with which his failed attempt to make it on his own has left him. The premise of My Bloody Valentine has some originality about it (which would last all of nine months, at which point it would be ripped off wholesale by The Prowler); and if we can’t judge the special effects in their entirety, at least what remains is enjoyably gruesome. In a genre field in which anything better than total failure is something to be celebrated, My Bloody Valentine stands out for hovering between the genuinely entertaining and the surprisingly painless – and besides: any film that craps all over Valentine’s Day is okay by me.
Well. Except for Valentine. Obviously.
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