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Thursday, February 14, 2019

A YEAR OF SLASHERS: My Bloody Valentine (1981)

“Halloween” opened the floodgates, making mainstream studios and independent producers realize masked killers slicing up necking teenagers could be big business. The resulting burst of films would crystallize the slasher movie genre, changing the American horror movie as we know it forever. After “Friday the 13th,” it became even more apparent that slasher movies based around holidays could be especially profitable. During the eighties slasher boom and in the years after, few calendar events haven't been mined for ghastly thrills. Paramount was hoping to recreate “Friday the 13th”s” box office success when it picked up a Canadian slasher flick also inspired by a celebrated date. Released in 1981, “My Bloody Valentine” would be largely lost at the time amid a hundred other similar films. Since then, it has developed a passionate cult following among slash-heads, frequently being considered among the best entries in the vast subgenre.

Welcome to Valentine's Bluff, a tiny mining community on Canada's northern coast. Despite being named for February's festival of lovers, Valentine's Day hasn't been celebrated in the town for two decades. On that date, 22 years ago, there was a cave-in down in the Hanniger Mines. While the townfolks celebrated above with parties and dances, the sole survivor of the incident – Harry Warden – resorted to cannibalism to survive. Driven totally mad, Warden would seek revenge on the town's officials next Valentine's Day, dressing in his miner's outfit, carving out hearts, and shoving them in candy box. After so many years, surely the danger is over. The town's leaders and its blue collar workers get ready to celebrate... And that's when the killings start again, more blood-soaked candy hearts being delivered around town.

There's a few reasons why “My Bloody Valentine” is so well regarded by slasher experts. Largely, the movie is distinguished by its foreboding atmosphere. This is established early on. The first scene has two miners walking through the solitary underground tunnels, the soundtrack filled out with the distant sounds of dripping water. There's an isolated, uneasy feeling to the film's location. The Canadian winter spreads a dreary, overcast sensation through the whole movie. Valentine's Bluff seems like a nice enough town but it's distant, chilly. George Mihalka's direction makes heavy use of shadows and creaky sound design, furthering this effective feeling. The stalking scenes, a standard part of any slasher flick, become especially potent because of this.

As strong as Mihalka's grip on atmosphere is, the director was also smart enough to realize that this was not the slasher genre's main attraction. Though gutted upon theatrical release, the MPAA cutting out almost all the movie's explicit gore, the gnarly special effects have been restored on DVD. And it rocks. Pickaxes are shoved through bodies and into heads, dislodging eyeballs and spurting lots of blood. Yet the killer is more creative than that. An especially brutal kill involves an industrial nail gun. A giant drill bit, a washing machine, and hot dog water are weaponized as well. One of my favorite kills has a woman impaled through the head on a pipe. Even more brutal is a hanging that turns into a decapitation. Mihalka frames all of these murders with the same sort of grim determination that characterizes the rest of the film.

Many low budget slasher pics produced in the early eighties couldn't be bothered to give their killer's distinctive gimmicks. “My Bloody Valentine,” however, understands the power of a memorable villain. Known as the Miner, and widely presumed to be Harry Warden throughout most of the film, the killer has a really cool look. The wide, dark eyes of the gas mask, especially when contrast with the glare of the helmet light, create a dehumanizing effect. And the pick-axe certainly makes for a memorable murder weapon. “My Bloody Valentine” also realizes a spooky mine shaft is a bitching location for a horror movie. The entire last third is set down in the Hanniger Mines, the dusty tunnels and rollicking mine carts creating bad-ass set pieces.

While the slasher genre was still young in 1981, “My Bloody Valentine” defies a few genre conventions and tropes. The film's cast of victims are not made up of giggling teens. They are slightly older than that, blue collar workers who spend their days down in the mines. While many of the characters still exist primarily to pad out the body count, we do get to know a few of these people. T.J. returns to town to discover his ex-girlfriend Sarah is now engaged to friend and rival Axel. A sense of regret hangs over T.J.'s head. Big guy Hollis is the lovable goofball of the group. When his death comes, his girlfriend is struck into a realistic state of catatonia and shock. Some pains were taken to make sure these characters weren't just warm bodies full of easily spilled blood. (The characters are also unapologetically Canadian, as T.J.'s heavy accent makes clear. You might be surprise how often “sorrey” is said in the film.)

At the same time, “My Bloody Valentine” is rarely bold or innovative. Many of its characters do fit in with the cliches of the time. There are at least two horny couples, who sneak off for some private time just to be killed instead. Among the cast is the practical joker, another stalwart component of eighties' slasher pics. There's the crazy old man whose warnings are ignored. The eventual reveal of the killer's true identity is not especially difficult to surmise. His motivations are even murkier, despite a last minute attempt at a clarifying flashback. And a romantic montage, which composer Paul Zaza scores like it's something out of “Love Story,” probably can be skipped.

“My Bloody Valentine” may not reinvent the wheel but it remains a favorite among gorehounds for a reason. The gore is effectively brutal, its characters are interesting, but the eerie approach – evident in everything from the film's creepy visual approach to its spooky theme song – is the main reason why the film endures. Paramount didn't loose money on “My Bloody Valentine” but it didn't exactly recreate “Friday the 13th's” blockbuster status, denying us a series of increasingly outrageous sequels. The closest we got was a ridiculous but sort of fun remake in 2009. The film's real legacy is the die hard fan following it still has among hardcore slasher fanatics, who rightfully pick this out as one of the subgenre's overlooked classics. [8/10] 

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