AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
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MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981)
|“Harry Warden spent the next year in the State mental hospital. Exactly one year later, on Valentine’s Day, he came back to town. He killed the supervisors who had left their posts, and he cut out their hearts…”|
Director: George Mihalka
Starring: Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier, Neil Affleck, Larry Reynolds, Don Francks, Patricia Hamilton, Keith Knight, Cynthia Dale, Alf Humphreys, Jack Van Evera, Peter Cowper
Screenplay: John Beaird
Synopsis: Two figures in full protective gear and masks move through the tunnels of the mine outside the small town of Valentine Bluffs. At a certain spot they stop: one of the two begins to remove their gear, revealing herself as a woman wearing nothing else but provocative underwear. She reaches for her companion’s mask, but he stops her from removing it. He begins to caress the woman’s left breast, on which is tattooed a small red love-heart. Suddenly, the man seizes the woman violently and slams her back against the point of a pick embedded in the mine wall behind her… Having cleaned up after a long, hard shift and eager to blow off steam, the employees of the Hanniger Mine head for town, where preparations for the upcoming Valentine’s Day dance are in full swing; the decorating committee has papered the town with streamers and love-hearts. 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 should be down-played, not 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. Only one of them, Harry Warden (Peter Cowper), was still alive; he was also 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 laugh and scoff at Happy’s grim tale, dismissing it as a legend. 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
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 13th’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 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 made their DVD debut in cut form, only to be eventually restored and re-released; though in the case of My Bloody Valentine, “sort of”: the theatrical version apparently had nine minutes of footage cut out of it, but the footage restored for the second DVD release only adds up to three minutes; although it gives a better indication of the original bloody intentions. It should be noted that while I liked My Bloody Valentine enough to buy it when it originally appeared on DVD here, I didn’t like it so much that I felt like buying it twice. The fact that the restored version includes some eye-violence had nothing to do with my decision not to double-dip…)
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. The film is just as emasculated as F13:2, but the editing job 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 that franchise, I have to concede that My Bloody Valentine is simply a better film.
Several things tend to separate My Bloody Valentine from the pack. The first is that it has something resembling an actual plot and, in pursuit of that, instead of the usual pack of moronic teenagers, its characters are adults, with adult concerns. (Granted, this doesn’t stop them doing something amazingly stupid. Nor does it free us from the curse of the Odious Comic Relief, but at least the OCR dies a horrible, horrible death…) The second is its use of 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 at the Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia. (It was locally cast, too, which results in an interesting mix of accents.) 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. 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 desolate stretch of coastline, the metal towers of the mine clear in the background.
The town itself seems somehow…huddled, being made up of delapidated buildings and people living inescapably regulated lives. The whole community revolves around the mine, with almost everyone dependent upon it for a living. The men’s time is divided between the mine and the local watering-hole; we are given no idea how the women spend their days, although options seem few and far between. The residents of Valentine Bluffs might dream of flight, but the experiences of T.J. demonstrate only too clearly that such things are easier imagined than done. It is not at all difficult to believe that as an escape from the tedium of routine, something as innocuous as a Valentine’s Day dance might assume an unnatural importance. The preparations for the dance that we see are 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. Not that I know anyone like that…)
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 the asinine behavior of both 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 (from her willingness to humour his little peculiarities, we infer that the lady is a professional), 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 titles.
The flashback scene does eventually happen, and it’s a beauty – in fact, it’s the highlight of the film. This is the other praiseworthy 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: a tide of Moosehead beer 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 sickly 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…
With the opening murder and the titles out of the way, we get our first glimpse of life in Valentine Bluffs, including the dominance of the Hanniger Mine, the mounting tension between T. J. Hanniger and his former best friend, Axel Palmer, and the even greater antagonism between T. J. and his father. The miners swing by the Union Hall to pick up their girlfriends, and our OCR du jour, Howard Landers, pulls a rather cruel practical joke upon Mabel Osborne, who has gone above and beyond in preparing for the revived Valentine’s Day dance. Mabel herself is enthused about the fact that this is the first dance of the kind for twenty years, but Mayor Hanniger asks her to downplay the fact, in light of the reason for the hiatus…
As the mayor and Sheriff Newby leave the hall, Howard rushes after them with a heart-shaped box of candy for the mayor, explaining that they found it inside. The mayor is at first delighted and rather flattered by the anonymous gift, which he opens as the sheriff is driving him away. But the card offers not a love-poem, but a vicious bit of doggerel warning to cancel the dance; while beneath the tissue paper, the mayor discovers a human heart. He cries out in revulsion and horrified anticipation, moaning that it can’t be happening again…
The flashback to the mine tragedy of twenty years ago and its murderous aftermath follows; and grimly enjoyable as this sequence is in its own right, its presentation within the film is highly problematic. For one thing, the town’s defining tragedy demonstrably happened, not only within the lifetime, but within the memory of many of those listening to Happy; yet they hang upon his every word as if they’d never heard the story before. Then, taking a cue from Howard, the group laughs and mocks Happy for his apocalyptic warnings.
This is standard slasher movie behavior, of course; but even though their reaction is largely directed at Happy’s insistence that each year on Valentine’s Day, Harry Warden returns to Valentine Bluffs dressed in full mining regalia and carrying a pick-axe, and roams the streets making sure that no-one has violated his prohibition upon holding the dance, it seems highly unlikely that a group of miners – in fact, anyone living in a mining-town – would respond so facetiously to a story involving a mining tragedy caused in the first place by the criminal negligence of those in charge. Furthermore, as the film progresses it becomes evident that some those present for the telling of the story of Harry Warden were closely connected to the victims of the original tragedy, so not just the telling itself, but particularly the group’s laughing response to it, is tactless, to say the very least.
But of course, there are cogent reasons why at this early stage, the screenplay isn’t keen to deal with any of that…
Meanwhile, the mayor’s hope that the heart in the box is just a sick practical joke, probably perpetrated by Howard, is quashed by the medical examiner, who confirms that it is a human heart. The ME concludes gloomily that it looks like Harry Warden is back in town---which is our cue for the appearance of our killer: a figure in full mining-gear, his face covered in a gas-mask, and with a spotlight on his helmet which serves to catch his victims like deer in headlights. Add to this his weapon of choice, a pick-axe, and Darth Vader-like breathing from behind the mask, and we have a genuinely intimidating creation.
Anyway, the killer is first seen stalking Mabel, the person most responsible for the revival of the Valentine’s dance. She is at first delighted when she finds what she takes to be candy from a secret admirer (“Jake?” she calls hopefully, hinting at a romance between herself and the sheriff), but then she reads the card…
The sheriff and the mayor tried desperately to get confirmation of Harry Warden’s whereabouts, but the person they contact at the state hospital can’t find his records. The mayor takes this to mean that the killer really is Harry, come back as he threatened to do if the dance was ever revived. And as a result, something truly remarkable happens: the mayor and the sheriff agree that the dance should be cancelled.
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.
And granted, the cancellation isn’t going to ruin the local economy, as is usually the bone of contention (a cynical person might point out that the local businesses have already done well out of it), but we’ve seen that to the people of Valentine Bluffs, this dance is a big deal. The sheriff realises that after all her hard work, Mabel will be particularly disappointed, so he goes to the laundry to speak to her first---finding her heart in the inevitable candy box, the rest of her cooking nicely in one of her own dryers (ew!). Another warning card is lodged in her chest cavity…
Mabel’s death is sold to the public as a heart attack; the real cause is kept secret, otherwise, “We’ll have a hell of a panic on our hands!” I dunno. 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, though it is pitched in terms of respect for Mabel’s memory, the consequence of this particular cover-up is that the young people are disinclined to take the cancellation of the dance – and a further prohibition upon parties – lying down. It is T. J. who suggests holding a party at the mine: the sheriff can patrol the town all he likes looking for defiant partiers; he surely won’t look there.
In justice to My Bloody Valentine, it should be pointed out that the common description of this, “They decide to hold a party in the mine”, is inaccurate; though eventually half a dozen people do end up going down the shaft. The party is actually held in the recreation room attached to the mining concern. We should also emphasise that at this time, these people do not know that there is a killer on the loose. They are simply rebelling against what strikes them as an unreasonable restraint upon their fun.
Of course---fatal stupidity does inevitably manifest itself; but that’s the nature of the beast.
Meanwhile, after another confrontation with Axel, T. J. grabs Sarah and carries her to what used to be “their place”. (She is carried away a little too easily, under the circumstances.) Though the T. J. / Axel stuff does get a little bit tiresome, but it serves a double purpose both in terms of the film’s climactic sequence, and again in respect to giving it a little more substance than usual. Thus, though T. J. behaves like a jerk for much of the film, this film makes us feel the depth of his humiliation after failing to make it on his own and being forced to come crawling home to his father. We also understand that his efforts to take Sarah away from Axel – or rather, his insistence that she will choose him over Axel – are the only way he has found of making himself feel less of a failure. As for Sarah, though she is self-evidently still strongly attracted to T. J., his abrupt desertion of her was too painful to be forgiven. The uneasy triangle remains.
The plans for the party are made in front of Happy, who is then threatened with violence if he gives them away. Happy has no intention of doing that, though every intention of punishing them for their defiance of Harry Warden’s warning. He sneaks out to the mine and rigs up a fake killer miner behind a door, gas-mask, helmet, pick-axe, the works: he sets it up so that when anyone opens the door, “Harry” will lunge at them. Happy is so delighted with his own handiwork that he keeps creeping back to the door and opening it. Needless to say, he goes once too often to the well; and the last time he opens the door is the last time he does anything…
(Happy’s heart later shows up in one of this film’s most disturbing moments: the sheriff has to fight off a small pack of street dogs to get at the bloody candy-box. You know we’re always complaining about bad canine actors? These dogs look worryingly like the real deal.)
The party at the mine marks the beginning of “end game” for My Bloody Valentine; and while it begins to wear its slasher movie credentials loud and proud from this point onwards, there are still a few things that it continues to do just a little differently. Almost shockingly for 1981, the film eschews what was already the tradition – not to say cliché – of the Final Girl. Even more notably, the killer is not interested in the gender of his victims, only in whether or not they are breaking his “rules”. Best of all, the film is on the whole refreshingly free of the “have sex and die” mentality of most of its fellows; and though a few of the victims do get theirs when they have snuck away from the crowd for a little private time, it’s not because of what they’re doing, but just because they’ve made themselves vulnerable. There is also a real sense that the couples care about one another, which adds to the impact of the murders.
(Apropos, the ever-popular two-backed shish-kebab makes a reappearance here, though in the cut version of the film we only see the aftermath.)
On the other hand, there’s no getting away from the fact that in order to set up its climax, My Bloody Valentine requires its characters to do something stupid; though even here it manages a little wriggle room, in that you see a natural, step-wise progression from slightly stupid to incredibly stupid; the alcohol probably helped.
(I may say that I was fascinated to learn that the overriding rule of the Hanniger Company is, “No women in the mine.” Really? As opposed to “No alcohol in the mine” or “No dicking around in the mine”? Really!?)
In any event, half a dozen of our characters decide on a midnight ride down into the mine shaft, just as the killer gets to work above ground, and just as the sheriff learns that Harry Warden died five years ago. The discovery of the first dead party-goers – and an equally dead phone – sends the terrified survivors back into town for help, while T. J. and Axel are forced to team up and go below ground in an effort to rescue Sarah and the others…
Though in the cut version of My Bloody Valentine we do not see the killer’s handiwork in all its gory glory, there are still enough imaginative kills and gross-out moments to keep you entertained. Though the skull-impalement on a crude shower-head of one female victim seems to be the general favourite (only a short clip of her acting as a bloody water-fountain, as originally intended, still remains), I can’t go past the discovery of a human heart in a pot of boiling frankfurters…chiefly because since the people who find it don’t know what it is and just go on making hot-dogs… Meanwhile we have death by pick-axe, death by boiling water, death by nail-gun and death by drill; while I am delighted to be able to report that in a moment of poetic justice, the dead body of that old practical joker, Howard Landers, ends up being used in a practical joke of the killer’s own devising. The extended game of cat-and-mouse within the darkened mines that closes My Bloody Valentine is claustrophobic and disturbing.
On the other hand, as with most slasher films, the logistics of the murders do not bear looking into too closely---particularly since there is never any hint that we are dealing with a supernatural entity. To an extent this film is structured as a whodunit, and in its efforts to conceal the identity of its killer, it cheats to a degree, with the killer’s activities not really jibing with those of the person at length revealed to be the killer. The final scene revelation is not only, inevitably, something of an anticlimax, but its accompanying “explanation” raises quite as many questions as it answers, as I alluded to above. (Did I say the people of Valentine Bluffs were tactless? That was an understatement.)
Still--- Given both the visual power of the image of the killer, and the fact that it leaves an open ending of sorts, it is strange that My Bloody Valentine never spawned a sequel---particularly at a time when films that had no right to do were churning out sequels in an unblushing wave (and yes, I am looking at you, Friday The 13th!). What we are left with is a standalone that still works as a slasher film and – dare I say it? – even just as a film.
Want a second opinion of My Bloody Valentine? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours And Counting.
|----revised and reformatted 22/11/2014|