1981 was a solid year for horror. Sam Raimi put out surprise cult hit Evil Dead, while John Landis scored big overseas with An American Werewolf In London. The runaway success of Friday the 13th ushered forth a fresh slew of slasher films as distributors scrambled to grab box office dollars. The Prowler, The Burning, Graduation Day, Bloody Birthday, and Hell Night all followed a similar premise along with the subject of today’s retrospective, My Bloody Valentine. With Valentine’s Day approaching, let’s take a look at the essential holiday-themed slasher flick.
Two decades ago in the small mining town of Valentine Bluffs, a gas explosion left miner Harry Warden trapped deep in a coal mine without rescue from his foreman, who left to dance the night away at the town’s annual Valentine’s shindig. In desperation and madness, Warden resorts to cannibalizing his dead co-workers until he manages to escape the mine. He hunts down the foreman and removes his heart, placing it in a heart-shaped box as a warning to the townspeople: if they ever celebrated Valentine's Day, even once, he would return to kill again. 20 years later, with the exception of a few old-timers, Harry Warden has been reduced to forgotten legend. That is, until a group of young miners and their girlfriends decide that throwing a party in the old mine would be a novel idea.
John Beaird’s screenplay for My Bloody Valentine still stands head and shoulders above its slasher contemporaries of the day. While the plot is admittedly formulaic, the characters are fully realized and surprisingly authentic. Following on the heels of F13’s success, it would have been easy to gather a bunch of horny teens for the slaughter and call it a day. Beaird instead chooses to create a handful of working-class townspeople that hold little pretension but a lot of empathy. The characters that reside in Valentine Hill make up one of the better casts of the 1980’s slasher film. Beaird took a story that, at it’s core, was fairly vanilla for the genre (killer on the rampage in a small town) and made it straight-up entertaining, cliches and all. The fact that I have so much fun watching the film year after year makes it easy to grin rather than groan at tropes like the “you’re all doomed” warnings to the young folk. There are enough red herrings to keep you guessing during your first go-round of the film, and it makes for interesting subsequent viewings. Beaird gets the highest kudos, however, for the creation of iconic slasher Harry Warden.
As far as boogeymen go, Harry Warden isn't concerned with explaining his motives. His sole mission is to kill a lot of people, quickly. In a stark contrast to the slow-stalking Michael Myers and the even slower villain of 1981’s The Prowler, Warden moves with deadly purpose. I imagine audiences of that time reacted with the same shock as those of us who watched zombies sprint (in a far more intimidating manner than that of the fast zombies in Return of the Dead) in 28 Days Later. He was swift, cold, and brutal. In the dizzying onslaught of slasher films that emerged post-1980, My Bloody Valentine stood out in that regard and in it’s outstanding ending. Most of the similar movies of the era toyed with the audience and gave them a false sense of security, only to have the killer jump up for a last-minute final scare. Maybe after the Final Girl is in the protective care of the authorities, the camera goes back to the scene of the massacre, doing a slow push on the bare spot where the killer’s body had lain. There is no such tomfoolery here. Harry Warden clearly gets away and vows to return and get his revenge on the town, leaving room open for the sequel that would have happened had the film had been more of a financial success.
My Bloody Valentine has long been a favorite among horror fans (including Quentin Tarantino) due to solid pacing, endearing performances, and memorable death scenes (”tumble-dry setting”, anyone?). George Mihalka managed to avoid the mistakes of his genre contemporaries and produce a well-crafted film. The low budget didn’t hinder the simple but well-placed cinematography, or the creepy atmosphere. There are no poorly-lit scenes, which is no easy task for a movie largely taking place in a mine. In a decade when so many slasher movies were churned out with bigger budgets and retrospectively poor filmmaking decisions, Mihalka’s competent execution of the tried-and-true horror formula makes it an instant classic. It’s reliance on the old horror tropes does nothing to hurt the overall viewing experience, in fact the slightest changes go a long way in amplifying tension. For all of My Bloody Valentine’s gore, many scenes actually hold the audience immobile and captive as the nitty-gritty action takes place just offscreen. The implied violence mixed in with the grisly visual effects made for a balanced aesthetic that never lets its audience relax. I’ll never forget the view from behind my splayed fingers and covered face as I watched the climactic chase in the mine when I was 12. Nearly 20 years later, seeing the uncensored ending for the first time produced the same effect.
Unfortunately, My Bloody Valentine came on the heels of the puritanical uproar that resulted from Friday the 13th’s onscreen gore. The MPAA eviscerated the film, censoring a large swath (about 9 minutes total) of the innovative and well-executed special effects. The film was heavily censored, and the fans have long clamored for an uncut version as a result. After Paramount claimed that the uncut footage had been lost, Mihalka stepped forward and confirmed that he had an untouched print in his possession. Still seeing no value, Paramount declined to go any further with it and released the diluted R-rated version. Once Lionsgate acquired the rights with plans to remake the film, horror fans finally got their wish. Lionsgate licensed the distribution rights and released the film in all of its uncensored glory in 2009. Whether it’s your first viewing or a revisit, be sure to grab the Lionsgate version, which allows viewers to watch My Bloody Valentine as intended, with the cut scenes intact (the Blu-Ray gives fans the option to watch the footage separately, or edited into the film). The DVD also features a director’s intro to the deleted bits that I enjoyed thoroughly.
My Bloody Valentine still stands alongside Black Christmas as shining examples of the superiority of Canadian slasher films over the American contributions of the era. It remains a fully satisfying deconstruction of the subgenre that still thrills, year after year.
Anya Novak is a horror enthusiast and freelance writer, with bylines at Horror-Writers and Daily Grindhouse.