You can’t accuse My Bloody Valentine of not getting straight to the point: it opens with a dialogue-less sequence of two miners walking through a damp and dark mine shaft until one of them decides to stop walking and removes her miner’s uniform to reveal herself as a blonde busty woman in underwear. The other guy gets more and more foreboding in his refusal to remove even his helmet and that foreboding vibe turns out to be prophetic when he grabs the woman in the middle of her seduction routine and shoves her right into the pointy end of a pickaxe he stuck on the wall behind her. Oh, what’s that? I’m forgetting the Valentine aspect. Not to worry, the woman happens to have small valentine heart over her left breast, all the better to have a target for that pickaxe to poke through as she screams us into the title card.
Of course the movie would have to promise sex and violence to function satisfactorily as one more slasher of arguably the most prolific year of that subgenre’s run: 1981, the year of The Burning, Hell Night, The Funhouse, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and to top it off the best Friday the 13th movie: the one that introduced us to Jason Voorhees proper. Except those are all American productions and it does not do to forget that Canada was just as involved in the unholy beginnings of that craze as we yanks were, given Black Christmas‘ existence pre-dates fellow inaugural slashers The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween and even matches up to their masterpiece status. My Bloody Valentine is a bit more humble than either of those three giants but director George Mihalka executes just about all the standards we expect of a slasher picture with no less an admirable turn of skill as any of the other 1981 greats (ok, maybe The Burning leaves it in the dust).
Those standards living in a fairly average screenplay by Jack Beaird (writing his first of two 1981 Canadian slasher pictures, the other being uncredited work on Happy Birthday to Me) about the suitably named town of Valentine Bluffs on the country’s east coast. It’s a small mining town with very little things for its fellas to unwind with after long day’s work in underground and that means that most of the young miners are looking forward to the Valentine’s Day party to come that weekend, the first celebration of the holiday in twenty years. Turns out that the dark memory of a tragic mining accident trapping five miners during that romantic holiday supersedes having “Valentine” in your name, all the moreso when Harry Warden – the sole survivor of that tragedy, whom we only see in a gas-helmeted miner’s outfit identical to what we saw at that tawdry opening and performed by Peter Cowper – took a year later to violently murdering the two mining supervisors whose negligence led to the explosion that trapped him with the co-workers he was forced to eat to survive. Warden left each supervisor’s disemboweled heart in their own candy box with a threat to continue his reign of terror if the town dares to throw another Valentine dance as he was taken away and institutionalized.
And no sooner than when a town volunteer Mabel (Patricia Hamilton) begins decorating the Union Hall for such a celebration does Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and Chief Newby (Don Francks) receive a similarly bloodied up candy box with a horrifying human heart in it and a note promising to fulfill Warden’s legacy if the dance does not get called off. But the young miners and their girlfriends have no idea and pay no mind to the adults’ firm insistence of the dance’s cancellation, least of all Hanniger’s son TJ (Paul Kelman), the lead miner Axel (future sitcom animator Neil Affleck), or Sarah (Lori Hallier) as they are much too busy dealing with the love triangle when TJ went west and left Sarah behind to be picked up by Axel before TJ’s dejected return.
Now this all certainly sounds like nothing special in comparison to the legacy My Bloody Valentine had since left behind as one of the major non-franchise slasher films (discounting a remake in the late 2000s, but that’s a story for another time), but there’s reading about what’s going on and there’s actually sitting in with it all. My Bloody Valentine is most distinguished in its unorthodox choice of location as half of it takes place in the rec room of the central mine where the youngsters all decide to throw their party without the authorities’ knowledge or within the mine itself as they are to be stalked and killed by either Warden or somebody imitating him. But it’s the selection of the shooting location – that of Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia – that truly gives that atmosphere more verisimilitude as it’s one thing to build together a dreary set but it’s another thing to shoot within those decrepit mines, creepy in their own right and inviting shadow and tension in the way it winds or feels set to collapse at any moment*.
Added on top of that is just the hangout vibe that the cast of youngsters naturally sink into in their many scenes together, most notably Keith Knight (who just stands out so well with his magnificent moustache), Cynthia Dale, and Alf Humphreys. It’s not like they’re particularly performing on a dramatic level, but the casual chemistry between all of them – whether drinking at the bar, shooting jokes as they walk out the mine elevator, or just sitting around at the central party – adds that sense of real working class presence to this small-town setting. And they are of course aided by characterizations and dialogue that give no particular depth as complex human presences (this of course hurts most in the sequences involving the TJ/Sarah/Axel triangle) but allows them at least the dignity of responding to the discoveries that something horribly wrong is going on appropriately, particularly compared to other slashers that take years for their hapless victims to realize mayyyyybe a psycho killer is on the loose.
These are major enough strengths to allow My Bloody Valentine the ability to survive much of its notorious suffering at the hands of the MPAA, attempting to censor as much of the “bloody” in the movie’s title as possible, but the fortune of living in 2021 (I mean, one of the few) is that we have by now a blu-ray release by Shout! Factory that properly gives a 2K restoration to the original negative most of the previously cut footage that was added to a 2009 Lionsgate Blu-Ray release** (which honestly looked way too rough in the earlier blu-ray) allows us to indulge in the wonderful low-budget raison d’etre of slasher cinema: fake gore effects. And some pretty good ones too: an eyeball poking that would certainly get its due homage in the remake, the afore-mentioned piercing of a woman’s chest from behind, an awesomely gruesome moment where a body drops with a noose around its neck that instantly decapitates upon becoming taut from gravity, and so much more. It’s altogether impressive what this tiny Canadian production was able to put together as the savage spectacle was the subgenre was meant to be.
And it should be proud of those tricks just as much as the rest of the tricks Mihalka and his crew do to make an adequate slasher picture, from the measured usage of low-lighting in those creepy underground tunnels to the occasional usage of a broad angle when the tension is finally broken by the murderous miner popping up to claim another victim (including an opening usage of a canted angle that disorients us with what is already a pretty abrupt interruption to the sex – in fact, while we ARE in the company of horny 20-year-olds, I don’t think there’s another moment in the film as risqué as that striptease – and the violence). My Bloody Valentine is certainly part of an unsophisticated subgenre that came out right at its most blatantly mercenary era, but it constructs an example of that subgenre with elegance and care to its assembly that makes it a point of pride to many of the modest fans and connoisseurs of that subgenre. And being one of those connoisseurs, I gladly declare to cheers upon it for being such a reliable little piece of horror cinema I can return to.