Friday, 14 February 2014

My Bloody Valentine (1981) and the Canadian Slashers

At the height of the slasher boom of the early ‘80s, Canada produced some of the sub-genre’s very best examples. Being cheap to finance and easy to shoot on location Canadian filmmakers wanted a slice of the American slasher pie as it had a very generous filling of the mula. However, despite this motivation for a cash grab Canada ended up making some of this type of horror’s very better entries of the era.

It is ironic how an independent Canadian production itself one of the definitive slasher films Bob Clark’s 1974 prototype template innovator ‘Black Christmas’ laid the foundations for the sub-genre only for American filmmaker John Carpenter to come along with his own indie production four years later and elaborate on this ground work. 1978’s masterful milestone ‘Halloween’ not only used the main elements of Clark’s movie but also pioneered many prominent others that would influence the sub-genre for modern horror for the rest of the years to come. Canada would then churn out some of its finest moments from 1980 to 1983 to cash-in on the success of Carpenter’s work itself influenced by a Canadian film.

Although it would take a further two years for the floodgates to open to a slew of copycat slashers with in contrast more blood-drenched offerings. Sean C. Cunningham came along in 1980 with Friday the 13th bringing the blood thanks to the graphic displays of the gruesome visceral murder set-pieces executed by SFX wiz Tom Savini. Thus, the glory gory days of the sub-genre’s golden age was born with bloodthirsty fans turning up in their droves to new slashers opening almost every weekend throughout the early to mid-‘80s hungry for the geek shows of the explicitly depicted death sequences. Canada was quick to react straight after Friday the 13th with the first of the canuxploitation offerings up to 1983 the majority of which were set in America to appeal the North American market.

The severely underrated ‘Prom Night’ with Halloween’s star Jamie Lee Curtis as its final girl got the ball rolling in 1980 followed very swiftly at the tail end of the year by the equally underappreciated gem ‘Terror Train’ again starring Scream Queen Curtis. 1981, which was the strongest year of the sub-genre in this decade saw the release of the movie in review here one of the greatest slashers ‘My Bloody Valentine’ followed up by the very clever if a little absurd giallo influenced ‘Happy Birthday to Me’. The sole Canuck offering in 1982 was the solid hospital set stalk n’ slash flick ‘Visiting Hours’ with the great character actor Michael Ironside in full on loony mode. 1983 saw two obscure entries released this time that thoroughly deserve more of an audience with the giallo come slasher ‘American Nightmare’ and the slightly better known ‘Curtains’. All of these films serve as some of the very best highlights of the slasher’s heyday and are prime examples of the sub-genre done right bettering many of their American counterparts of the day.

On the surface of things ‘My Bloody Valentine’ has all the makings of a routine slice n’ dicer. It is holiday themed, a past traumatic event on said holiday returns to haunt the present on that day, there is a young attractive cast, a community member of the older generation warns them of their impending doom and a mysterious masked killer related to that tragic past who has been wronged uses a variety of weapons to dispatch said young folk. It is though screenwriter the late John Beaird and director George Mihalka’s thoughtful mature approach to the material to tell a good story aided by a strong effort from a solid cast along with expertly crafted striking stylistic traits that makes it a cut above (a terrible clichéd pun there).

The premise is similar to that of Joseph Zito’s flawed yet sturdy slasher The Prowler released in the same year of 1981. Here’s an excerpt from my review of the film - “They share a much similar set up entailing the return of once banned dance celebrations due to killings that were committed on those days many years ago only for a bloody trial of mass murder to start up when the celebratory events return…” In ‘My Bloody Valentine’ 21 years ago on Valentine’s Day in the small mining town of Valentine Bluffs, a tragic mining accident trapped five men underground due to an explosion that buried them under rubble. It was down to the negligence of two supervisors who failed to check for dangerous levels of methane gas before leaving their posts while the workers were still down in the mine as they were eager to get to the annual Valentine’s dance. Four of the men died but a survivor Harry Warden was rescued found in a state of madness. As the rescue had taken so long, he had to resort to cannibalism to survive by eating the bodies of his dead co-workers. A year later to the day Harry broke out of a mental asylum and decked out in his full mining outfit armed with a pickaxe he took revenge by brutally murdering the two supervisors. He then cut out their hearts leaving them in decorative Valentine chocolate boxes he left on tables at the dance with a message warning the town to never hold a Valentine’s dance again or he will return to kill.

After 20 years of heeding the warning the town has finally decided to put the past behind them and move on by preparing for the return of their annual Valentine’s dance thinking they are safe in the knowledge that Harry Warden has been locked back up in an asylum since the murders. The town’s younger generation are excited for it, as they were way too young back then to remember those tragic events. Three of them are involved in a love triangle. T.J. (Paul Kelman) the son of the mayor has just returned from having trying and failed to make it on his own out in the big city leaving behind his girlfriend Sarah (Lori Hallier). While he was away, Sarah began seeing his best friend Axel (Neil Affleck). T.J. wants her back and Sarah still has feelings for him too that angers Axel causing a lot of friction between the three. T.J.’s father Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and the town’s sheriff Jake Newby (Don Francks) receive a box of Valentine’s chocolates from an anonymous sender. Hanniger holding the box reads aloud to Jake a note that has come with it - “From the heart comes a warning, filled with bloody good cheer, remember what happened as the 14th draws near!” He then opens the box and to their horror, it contains a human heart. The murders start up again; after 20 long years has Harry Warden returned to make good on his promise?

We do not have here the usual annoyingly obnoxious horny teenaged middle-class one-dimensional characters running around shagging every chance they get that is often the case in this sub-genre. Instead, we have really likable mature young adults from a blue-collar working class town with relatable life situations making these everyman characters more sympathetic and seem more real to the average viewer who in turn fears for their terrifying plight when they are faced with the danger of death. T.J. desperately pleads to Susan to take him back while they take a slow walk on the beach. T.J. and Axel share a bottle of whisky while playing their harmonicas together as T.J. attempts some kind of reconciliation due to their history together as friends only for their current situation concerning their mutual love for Sarah to inflame the existing tension between them. These are simple dialogue scenes yet they add so much rich texture to these lead characters layering them with human emotion making for genuine life drama away from the slasher goings on constructed this way to take the audience out of a horror movie for those moments to involve them in the kind situations they can relate to in everyday life. This makes the later horrors that happens to these characters seem more real and are even more frightening for it.

The movie also has a theme of history repeating itself much like many entries in this sub-genre really, only that it is handled here with more intelligence. T.J. is the local boy who was supposed to have made good by getting out of the dull existence of his drab little hometown making it on his own out in the big wide world putting it all behind him only to fall on his arse and end up back where he started. He has made peace though with this endless circle of life the repetitive everyday grind that he once tried to escape from conforming to its ways. This serves as a narrative purpose mirroring the terror that await him. The town that he had once forgotten itself chooses to forget its own past and move on from its horrifying history only for those past horrors to return failing in their own attempt to put it all behind them and now again must face their past. It is an endless cycle.

The opening pre-title sequence sets up the context and tone for the film perfectly. It is dreamlike in a sexual fantasy way with its fetish like imagery helped to be realised by Rodney Gibbons’ gloomily dark cinematography and Paul Zaza’s surrealistic score. Two people dressed in full mining gear head down to the mine where one of them a woman strips off down to her underwear. She tries to get the still masked and fully dressed obviously a man to have sex with her only for him to go mad when he sees a tattoo of a heart on her left breast and impales her with the head of his pickaxe that he has embedded in the wall behind her. Her heart is the one the miner killer sends to the Mayor and Sherriff.

In terms of the context of the movie it delivers all of its elements in one neat little basket introducing the viewer of what to expect. The heart tattoo and the killer’s sudden anger for it signifies the killer’s hatred for the holiday and we see the first of many murders due to this psychotic rage that precedes the title card - “My Bloody Valentine”. This opening scene is also misleading though as it presents to us a half-naked woman so the audience might expect the usual generous amounts of female nudity that is part and parcel of the slasher sub-genre. There is no T & A to be seen here at all though as Beaird and Mihalka are more concerned with real human drama in between the set-pieces.

What the film does not shy away from is the gory viscera of the murders. Originally cut to shreds by Paramount to avoid an X rating, these scenes were restored for the 2009 DVD release. As great as it is to see all of this though the difference in quality of the picture is clearly noticeable having been spliced into a remastered version from the original negative. Still, that is just a minor gripe as it is obviously better than nothing at all which is what we had up to this point. Although this is not the full-uncut version either really, as it is just the nearest possible cut to the director’s originally intended vision. There is a double impalement scene of a couple of lovers as they are just about to get down to it as the killer shoves a drill bit through the man’s back who is on top. Unfortunately, this footage cannot be found.

The tone for the rest of the proceedings is set up very effectively in the opening scene  as well. The brooding, cold, menacing, sombre and vivid atmosphere encapsulates thick fat suspense in a pitch perfect-paced affair contributed to greatly by again Gibbon’s cinematography, Zaza’s score and also the inspired gritty real location setting of a small Canadian mining town. The exceptionally directed climax filmed in the deep dark depths of the actual mines of this town with the miner killer stalking and murdering his trapped victims in these maze like tunnels is supremely thrilling, tightly claustrophobic and features one of the movie’s most memorably startling imagery as the killer goes along smashing the light bulbs of the mine with his pickaxe with such ferocity. The miner killer is one of the greatest ever slasher antagonists embodying an avenging angel of death - a dark heavy breathing goggle-masked grim reaper.

The ending is immensely harrowing offering us no closure as the now unmasked killer disappears into the darkness of the mine raving madly as he promises to kill again to return to a town that is doomed forever to be haunted by its past emphasizing again on the theme of history repeating itself. The cycle will begin a new. This is capped off as the picture fades out as we hear the mad laughter of the now revealed killer with the chillingly haunting sound of the original folk song ‘The Ballad of Harry Warden’ especially recorded for the soundtrack. These closing moments also work remarkably well because a sequel was never made therefore not tarnishing this highly memorable final scene. Although a follow-up was in the early stages of development it never got off the ground but elements of its screenplay were kept in the very entertaining 2009 remake written by Todd Farmer and directed by Patrick Lussier.

The film had the misfortune to be released at a time when the slasher sub-genre had become fast food horror. It was lumped in with the like and so was all too easily cast aside by mainstream critics that dismissed it as such fare. This is a shame because it stands head and shoulders above any other 80’s offering of its ilk released before Wes Craven’s terror on the dreamscape variation of the slasher template ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and is one of the very finest examples of the sub-genre. Although it follows a general pattern that was laid out before it, it strives to handle the material maturely by giving it a very human emotional lending and an earthy realism rarely seen in this kind of horror. The common conventions it does follow it executes these with amazing skill. It is in my top five slashers after respectively ‘Halloween’ (1978), ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984), ‘Black Christmas’ (1974) and above ‘Scream’ (1996). ‘My Bloody Valentine’ is one of the best horror movies of the ‘80s and one of the greatest slashers of all time.

**** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2014 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. I absolutely agree that My Bloody Valentine is easily one of the best of the much maligned slasher genre. It's one on my list of movies that I'm thrilled to be able to say I was able to see on the big screen when it was originally released. Canada definitely cranked out some good ones during this time period. Why has no one ever produced a documentary about Canadian horror along the lines of Not Quite Hollywood? Great post!

    1. Thank you, Brandon.

      I would have loved to have seen this on the big screen. And yeah, Canada has churned out some great genre cinema. Outside of the slasher sub-genre, David Cronenberg is one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.