Monday, July 5, 2010

Summer of Slash: My Bloody Valentine (1981)

One of the things that make Canadian slashers stand out more than their American contemporaries is their propensity to be consistently not awful. I think the primary reason for this is their attention to detail in things like setting and atmosphere and pacing. Canadian slasher films were much more interested in evoking a mood through the settings and the towns they took place in; in addition, they also tried a little harder to establish their characters, rather than just making them "dead teenagers". The Canadian slasher film seemed to strive for more – whether they succeed or not is up for debate, of course – instead of simply moving from one bloody kill to the next. None, perhaps, did this better than My Bloody Valentine , which along with Bob Clark's Black Christmas, is one of the quintessential Canadian slashers.

What's so impressive about My Bloody Valentine? Well, on paper not much as one glance at its story (and just how damn simple it is), and you can see that it's amazing how effective the film is. You have a small town with a history, a Valentine's Day dance, a killer on the loose, and horny young people being warned by crusty old townsfolk not to take the legends of a mining mask-donned and pick-axe wielding maniac lightly. The history of the small town goes like this: 20 years ago in a small mining town a man named Harry Warden found himself trapped in a coal mine due to a gas explosion, his foreman leaves to attend a Valentine's Day dance (the name of the town is Valentine Bluff, how appropriate) leaving the him trapped in the mine. Warden goes a little nutso and resorts to eating the remains of his dead co-workers until he finally escapes the mines, kills the foreman by cutting out his heart and placing it in a heart shaped box, warning the town that if it ever held another celebration of Valentine's Day he would kill again. Flash forward 20 years as the history of Harry Warden is almost erased from the memory of the small town (with the exception of those crusty old people who constantly warn the young whippersnappers, visual examples below...) as a group of young miners and their girlfriends decide to throw a party in the mine. Bad idea. And you can guess the rest.

My Bloody Valentine won't blow you away with its originality (the story, when you get down to it, is your basic slasher premise: the return of a psychotic killer, usually on some kind of holiday night, hell-bent on killing everyone in their sight); however, what's interesting about the film is the way the film's director, George Milhaka, values pacing and character development over simple hack and slash tropes (this was a staple of the Canadian slasher film…just look at a movie like Terror Train , a pretty generic idea that focused its energy in other places that American slashers weren't interested in), which makes the killings – when they do happen – much more effective. I like how Milhaka uses the cramped space of the mine to his advantage, and lets things play out in the background (like the famous shot of the dude stuffed in the refrigerator) without drawing too much attention to the grisly images.

The film was notorious for having cuts made to every one of its death scenes thanks to Paramount's knee-jerk reaction to the backlash against the gore of their film released a year earlier, Friday the 13th; however, those scenes have been restored since the film's unrated release on DVD. The death scenes are pretty stellar in the film (nothing close to its copycat film, the American The Prowler, which posted some of Tom Savini's greatest effects) too as when a man gets a pick-axe through the jugular and his eye pops out (obviously edited out of the theatrical release), a girl has the back of her head shoved through a nozzle - later revealing water and blood coming out of her agape mouth, or when a woman's face has been set to "tumble dry low". However, despite the film's violence, My Bloody Valentine still favors atmosphere over gore (you honestly don't lose much if you watch the Theatrical version over the Unrated version, well, except the awesome gore effects...but the tone doesn't change or anything), and really the film plays out more like an Italian giallo picture than a slasher film. The killer in his mining costume is pretty creepy, and often we see the killer chasing their victims from his POV, and it's quite effective (or maybe I'm just biased towards Italian horror motifs).

What's even more impressive is how My Bloody Valentine's paltry budget (estimates vary between 1.5 and 2 million) didn't handicap the film in becoming one of the most polished slashers of the 80's. In addition to the small budget (which seemed odd considering the success Paramount was coming off of with FT13) had a treacherous and hellish shoot. In Adam Rockoff's wonderful book Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (a must read for horror fans) he describes the shoot as such:

The Sydney Mines [where they shot the film] were in use at the time and the crew only had a few abandoned mine shafts in which to film. Along with the inherent problems of shooting in a working mine, the production was fraught with other difficulties. In addition to spending $30,000 to repaint a part of the mine which an art director erroneously defaced in an attempt to create a dingy look for the set, the production was threatened with a lawsuit by an artist whose uncredited work is briefly shown in one scene. The minor fiasco cost them $15,000 to settle out of court.

[B]ut perhaps the biggest threat to the production came from the locals themselves. Eventually, the actual mine workers got fed up. They worried that the powerful lights which were being used to illuminate the mine's dark shafts would somehow cause an explosion and gave the production 24 hours to vacate the premises. Since the film was not done, the production went into "triple golden time" – the film industry's version of overtime – a nightmare for cost-conscious producers and especially devastating to low budget productions. Mihalka was racing to finish and had not slept in over a day, but as [John] Dunning [producer]says, "The result is great…he did a helluva job."

Whereas most cheaply made slashers (that is, slashers made on the cheap) do indeed seem cheaply made, My Bloody Valentine looks like a (gasp) real movie. Scenes are clearly lit, competently framed and blocked, and the acting doesn't induce as many scoffs as one would expect from a low budget horror flick. That shows the skill involved in making this film, as all one has to do is point to countless slasher movies that were also limited in their budget and in the abilities of those making decisions behind the camera. There's nothing worse than watching a poortly lit horror scene and not knowing what you're supposed to be afraid of, and since most of the action in My Bloody Valentine takes place in a mine it could have been easy for the filmmakers to muck it up, showing cut-corners or shortened work days; but, they don't, and they seem to understand filmmaking 101 better than any other slasher film released in 1981 (a prolific year for the subgenre, which usually didn't showcase a whole lot of filmmaking competence).

There's a reason why My Bloody Valentine still remains a classic among die-hard horror fans: its execution of its simple formula is classic, and its aesthetic doesn't reek of amateur hour (like a lot of slashers coming out post-Friday the 13thdid); rather, it's a well paced horror film that maintains a high level of tension throughout despite its reliance on classic slasher tropes. The film amps up the tension at the end with a chase through the mine, and a denouement that occurs on a moving mining car that is superb. It also uses its setting and spacing to great effect, with an array of scenes that are executed perfectly by having the action take place just off camera or in the periphery. The filmmakers use sound to great effect, too, as the final moments in the mine are brilliantly executed examples of how sound can amplify the horror of a horror film. It's quite impressive.

However, what I really love about My Bloody Valentine is that when shit happens, shit happens…what do I mean by this? Well, when the killer wants to kill someone, he does it. There's no padding or false tension like so many slasher films, and at the end during that fantastic chase sequence, the killer actually, you know, moves with purpose. Allow me to invoke The Prowler once again: in that movie (made the same year, 1981, as My Bloody Valentine) you have a killer donning a WWII gas mask (that looks eerily similar to the mining costume the killer wears in this film) you have a killer who stands around and lets the characters meddle with door knobs and try to get away as he slooooowly stalks his victims. It's obvious padding for a pretty bland slasher movie. In My Bloody Valentine, however, you have a killer who doesn't mess around with his victims. There's no toying with their emotions, he simply just pick-axes them to death, and that swiftness of horror makes it far more terrifying than the plodding killers found in countless slashers post-1981 (aka the Jason Voorhees syndrome). Plus, you have an ending that doesn't try to be tricky or arbitrarily ambiguous. We actually witness the killer getting away, swearing revenge on the town; an ending lending itself to a sequel (that will most likely never happen now that the film has been re-made), rather than toying with us by making us believe the killer is dead (ahem, Jason Voorhees, anyone?) and won't appear again, only to have them show up with some ridiculous reason explained to the audience in the sequel. I liked how straightforward the filmmakers were here.

I always appreciate it when slasher films don't toy with me to the point where I get bored waiting for something to happen. I also appreciate it when slasher films don't try and make the killer out to be some kind of invincible monster. Much like the owl suit-wearing psycho in Michele Soavi's Stagefright, the killer in My Bloody Valentine isn't concerned with making sure we understand how creepy and evil they are…they have one purpose and one purpose only: to kill. I don't need to see countless scene after countless scene of the killer simply standing there looking creepy and menacing while a girl screams for her life. I'm more scared by a killer that actually moves fast and kills with purpose; in addition, the design of the killer (especially if they're wearing a mask or a costume) should speak for itself without the director having to draw a lot of attention to it.

My Bloody Valentine continues to be one of few slasher entries that remain at the acme of great horror films of the 80's. It's a perfect example of how to do the slasher film right, and it remains exhibit B (exhibit A is Black Christmas) as to why the Canadians knew how to do said slasher film better than the Americans. If you want to see a good example of the slasher film, and you remain unsure of the subgenre, you need to check out My Bloody Valentine, a film that provides sufficient evidence that even the slasher film can be deconstructed, enjoyed as a lark, and still be fulfilling in a way that all good horror (or any genre for that matter) movies are: getting us to come back to them again and again, no matter what year it is.


  1. Kevin, you are always at your absolute best when discussing this genre, and kudos to you for this absolute masterpiece of an essay! I do pretty much agree with you on this film. Yeah, it has a conventional side, but typically for the Canadian slasher there's more character development, and it's definitely one of the ultimate "shit happens" movies. The pacing and the building tension are skillfully employed here. By the way, I am a fan of TERROR TRAIN too!

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  3. I agree that this is one of the better slashers that were made. It truly does look better than most of the crap that came in the wake of FRIDAY THE 13TH, which is even more surprising given the budgetary limitations you mention. I may have to give the film more credit than I was willing to initially...

    You mention that ending and I loved that as well. There's something about the fact that it's just a guy, no supernatural presence, and he simply escapes into the mines, sure to strike again. It's an eerie down note to end the film on and I like it for doing it in such an open way (the "body isn't there anymore" method had to been done to death in HALLOWEEN's wake and the ending scare method was done to death in FRIDAY's wake).

  4. Count me in as another fan of this film, I'd definitely place it in the top 5 of the genre (if we are talking the classic era from HALLOWEEN to FRIDAY THE 13th PART 8: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN), for personal reasons I'd rate something that was a bit more outlandish for the top (and probably something that has more gore) since the genre is so limited that I like the real strange ones.

    That said this is a great film, and a great essay here Kevin. I remember reading about Tarantino's DEATH PROOF as his homage to slashers and he cited this as his all time favorite slasher film.

  5. Jamie -- It made me chuckle to see JASON TAKES MANHATTAN as the bookend to anything :)

    Just for fun, why FRIDAY VIII and not JASON GOES TO HELL as the end of the classic era. I always found the 93/94 era was the true death knell of slashers, with SCREAM coming just around the corner to usher in a new style of horror films.

  6. Hmmmm... I've never thought about it, I've just always considered that the 'classic era'. I suppose it's because PART 7 was good (my favorite or second favorite of the series), then PART 8; MANHATTAN was such a bomb, it showed how dead the genre was. JASON GOES TO HELL was terrible too, but at that point it was just another nail in the (already dead) coffin.

    I also say it because when it came out I saw it on vhs as a 'new release' and enjoyed it, the boxer getting his head literally 'punched' off by Jason remains one of my top 10 slasher kills. It rolls down the roof then bank shots into the dumpster then closes! Classic!

    SCREAM was a resurgence of sorts for that type of film, but it's crazy to think about horror post late 90's, in America much of it has actually been Slashers films in one way or another. The slasher resurgence is something that no one talks about either since it is insignificant, or no one realizes it is happening. It's also why most horror fans have had to look to France or Japan since then for the interesting stuff.

  7. Perhaps I go with GOES TO HELL for sentimental reasons, because it was the first horror film I was able to see in the theater. Even though I knew it was bad while I watched it, there was a certain visceral thrill to watching it in that environment.

    Plus, someone gets bashed to death against a tree while in a sleeping bag. Doesn't beat punching a head off, by any means, though.

    My favorite part of MANHATTAN? The fact they try to pass off Vancouver for NYC. Yeah, that's one cheap-ass film.

  8. I thought the sleeping bag against a tree was way earlier then that one Troy, or did it happen multiple times? It seems it's been to long since I've watched several of those and they are blurring together. Either way that is one great kill scene.

    Ah yes the Vancouver for NY City... even with a bankable franchise you got to keep the costs down. I will say I've watched that one more then any in the series since I liked it for it's newness as a preteen. I think it's the best 'so bad it's good one' in the series too.

    BTW I took a date in college to see JASON X in the theater. It was quite a highbrow evening.

  9. Everyone:

    Thanks for the comments. Sam and Rod I don't know why your comments disappeared, but they aren't showing up for some reason. Anyway, once I figure all of that out I'll respond in full to everyone's comments.

  10. Lord knows what happened to my first attempt to comment here, so I'll try again...

    Loved this piece on a personal favourite from amongst a sub-genre that I largely loathe, and great job on identifying the aspects that I admire about it: as you say, it's unusually like a real movie in its style, characterisations, and narrative drive. Unlike so many slasher films, it turns into an effective fight/flight melodrama, and director Mihalka had the chops to actually, properly structure his film that way. I also love how the stalk and slash bits are so tersely handled, and I also like how the film doesn't drag out the usual shenanigans of hiding and finding the bodies: that crunch time comes pretty quickly, and apart from the dimwits already down the mine, everyone does the pretty logical thing and gets the hell out of Dodge. It's a crude movie in many ways, the dialogue and story set-ups hoary, especially in the first third, but I appreciate how well the film nails the milieu: I grew up in a mining town, and the film captures the mood very well. All the ex-golden boys turning increasingly grouchy and dour in going down the pit = very accurate.

  11. Thanks, Rod. I have no idea. It shows that there are 10 comments on the front page, but when I open to read them through Blogger, only a handful are showing up. My brother said the same thing has been happening to other blogs. Sounds like a Blogger issue.

    Regardless...thanks so much for the visit and for the comment. I'm glad you were able to bring your experiences growing up in mining town to the conversation. I found that element of the film to be one of the more interesting aspects, because you so rarely see a slasher film slow down enough to develop characters. Nothing felt like it was just being thrown at the audience for the sake of padding.

    And yes, the violence/chase scenes are great because of how they are "tersely handled" as you say. Great comment.

    Thanks as always for the visit and the comment. Much appreciated.

  12. Troy and Jamie:

    I think Jamie is correct in that there was "death by slamming into tree" in an earlier Friday movie. One quick look at Hysteria Lives! (which oddly only has 6 reviews for the series) and it seems that in Part VI this happened:

    "Male has arm ripped off and slammed into a tree"

    So perhaps that's what you're thinking of, Jamie. Otherwise, I think Troy is correct that Jason Goes to Hell has the "sleeping bag against a tree" murder.

    Anyway...more later when I have the time (I promise I'll actually respond to your posts about My Bloody Valentine, hehe)

  13. Oh, one last funny tidbit about Friday the 13th: Part VI...that movie had 17 deaths!! Good gravy no wonder this subgenre became so boring.

  14. Kevin and Troy:

    I'm thinking of the number 1 here, which happened in PART VII (which is tied with PART IV for me for best of the series, PART II is good as well).

    Funny that right when the bag hits the tree the body goes limp, it's a great effect.

  15. Jamie -- apparently I can't view that sight at work, as it's considered "obscene/tasteless". Hehe.

  16. Here Troy

    PART VII kill #5.

    My second favorite? PART VI when the cop gets literally folded up like a card table. (last kill in that film.

    Thats a pretty serious link, and hilarious. As absurd as it was what Kevin said earlier about one film featuring 17 kills, this list shows he topped 20 several times. Really absurd (and awesome).

  17. I, of course, a newcomer to this blog, but the author does not agree