Thursday, February 14, 2008

Classic Slasher Commentary: My Bloody Valentine

*In honor of February 14th, here's a look back at a classic slasher that had lots of heart(s). In the second installment of Classic Slasher Commentary, we examine our love affair with the Canadian slasher opus My Bloody Valentine.

Among the myriad knockoffs of Halloween and Friday the 13th that promulgated the early eighties, My Bloody Valentine is a little Canadian entry in the golden age of slashers that stands out as one of the better bad films of the time period. Sharing the distinction with the aforementioned films as being amongst a handful of holiday-themed and date-related slasherfare, My Bloody Valentine employs genuinely creepy atmosphere, a memorable villain, and just enough cheese to keep things from getting too serious. The backdrop of Valentine’s Day is the stuff designed for slasher mayhem, with bright red and pink streamers and heart-shaped boxes of candy convections ready for bloody exploitation. And My Bloody Valentine takes marvelous advantage.

Taking its U.S. theatrical bow on February 11th, 1981, My Bloody Valentine tells the formulaic tale of teens preparing for a Valentine’s Day Dance in the fictional mining town of Valentine Bluffs – “the little town with a big heart”, as a roadway sign proudly proclaims. Like all good slashers, there’s a story as to why the town has shunned the romantic holiday, and it has very little to do with denouncing the crass commercialism of this Hallmark mainstay. A cautionary tale is told to the usual group of horny, hapless victims-to-be: On Valentine’s Day, twenty years ago, five miners were working late in the mine while the town partied the night away at the annual dance. Two supervisors, anxious to join the townsfolk revelers, abandon their posts before the men are safely out of the mine and forget to check the methane gas levels in their haste. An explosion ensues, trapping the miners, and when rescue crews finally reach the ensnared miners they find only one survivor – Harry Warden – wild-eyed and reduced to cannibalism to survive. Poor Harry is carted off to the local sanitarium, but returns to Valentine Bluffs the following Valentine’s Day and quickly dispatches with the two supervisors who eschewed responsibility for partying (see the moral?). Lending new definition to the term heart wrenching, crazy Harry leaves the party-bound townsfolk some gruesome heart-shaped boxes with a warning never to hold a Valentine’s Day Dance again.

Flash forward to present day as the town inexplicably decides to put their bloody past behind them and move ahead with the first Valentine’s Day Dance since the murders. Before you can utter the words Will you be my Valentine, bloody hearts carrying ominous red roses/blue violets-style warnings begin to arrive on the inept police chief’s doorstep. Has Harry escaped from the mental hospital and returned to make good on his threats? Or is someone else taking their love of the Harry Warden legend to heart this Valentine’s Day? It isn’t long before the blue-collar teens disregard the lawman’s orders to forgo all Valentine’s revelry, sneaking off to the mines instead for the usual smoking, drinking, and sex that seemed to draw serial killers out like magnets in these glorious cheesefests.

The narrative borrows liberally from its predecessors – from Michael Myers-esque POV shots to the Crazy Ralph-ish bartender who warns the party-going teens to beware of Harry Warden. And while Michael Myers was complacent with his William Shatner mask and Jason comfortable in his hockey mask, My Bloody Valentine’s villain goes for full mining regalia – replete with jumpsuit, boots, gas mask, and hardhat with a handy light for hunting down his prey. Fun stuff indeed. But in terms of the most ripped-off plot devices and conventions, My Bloody Valentine’s borrows more Friday than Halloween. There’s the large body count and inventive kills – heads shoved in boiling pots of water, water pipes crammed through the backs of necks, bodies tumble-dried on high, nail gun shots to the head, pickaxe impalements. There’s the idea of avoidable tragedy at the hands of supervisors shirking responsibility – camp counselors not watching a child swimming in favor of making out, supervisors leaving workers below in the mines to get to the party – and the ensuing revenge by a family member. There are the inane Nostradamus-style forebodings by town crazies – a bicycle-peddling nut job nicknamed Crazy Ralph in one and a batty beer-slinging barkeep named Harvey in the other. There’s also an element of mystery that both film’s share – the identity of an unseen killer that’s not made clear to audiences until the third act and muddied by the injection of a few half-baked red herrings along the way.

Borrowed plot conventions aside, one has to give credit to screenwriter John Beaird (also an uncredited writer on another Canadian slasher opus, Happy Birthday To Me, that same year) who nobly attempted to defy custom by endeavoring to flesh out the one-dimensional characters germane to the genre. Unfortunately, a love triangle involving two of the Neanderthal miners and the bland object of their affection and a few sketches of personality written into some of the roles fail to make us empathize much when the miner comes a’ calling.

My Bloody Valentine is almost as famous for its MPAA-excised gore that didn’t make it into the final film, boasting a legendary uncut version that floats unseen amongst those other oft-speculated about phantom director cuts somewhere in the abyss of long-lost celluloid treasures. With some outstanding special make-up work by FX veteran Tom Burman, Valentine’s kills in the released cut come off like a sumptuous dinner yanked out from under you after nibbling the first tasty bite – ultimately leaving you hungry for what you didn’t get to sample. It’s more a wine tasting than buffet. Suffice to say, what Myers was to butcher knives and Voorhees was to machetes, Harry Warden is to pickaxes.

The scenery (when the D-list cast of largely unknown Canadians isn’t chewing on it) is effectively creepy, with long shots of dilapidated mines and depressing landscape shots of the almost-but-not-quite ghost town of Valentine Bluffs giving a realistic sense of the abject poverty associated with older mining towns. Filmed from late September to early November in 1980 at the Sydney Mines in Novia Scotia, My Bloody Valentine makes the most of location and casts an appropriately hopeless and somber backdrop for the murderous mayhem. Director George Mihalka gets props for using the interior of the mines for much of the slaughter action, the eerily lit tunnels and passages adding a fair degree of claustrophobia to the proceedings.

It was inevitable that with all the 80’s horror films being fast-tracked to remake-ville, My Bloody Valentine is getting its own re-imagining. And, while its fan base may not be comprised of bloodthirsty loyalists like those of Halloween or Black Christmas, the fact that there’s enough chatter on Internet boards to sustain interest in this low-budget slice of slasher heaven more than 25 years since its release is testament to its endurance.

Note: This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in Doorways Magazine #1.

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