Failed experiment or blood and guts classic? Remembering Paramount’s initial punt at a marquee killer
Paramount had high hopes for My Bloody Valentine. Following the unbridled success of the Halloween-inspired Friday the 13th, the studio craved a marquee killer in the Michael Myers mode, and with Jason Voorhees a distant memory in fictional terms (at least for now), an interim madman was needed to further tap into the spurting vein of the popular slasher picture. Friday the 13th Part 2 was already in development as My Bloody Valentine neared completion, but the universal holiday theme was something Paramount were obviously rather fond of, and with the sub-genre nearing its commercial apotheosis, John Dunning and André Link’s Canadian, low-budget production company Cinépix had just the commercial ticket.
Cinépix, who had already produced several early David Cronenberg features, had initially approached Hungarian director George Mihalka with the idea of making a comedy until time constraints intervened. Mihalka only had one film under his belt at the time, a racy teen romp named Pick-up Summer that had done some fairly decent business in Canada and the United States, but horror was the genre they eventually settled on. “At the time, I had a contract with [Cinépix] to develop two films,” Mihalka would explain in an interview with Terror Trap. “André and John turned around and told me it was impossible to be able to shoot the film in the summer or fall. This was sometime in June or early July … And John Dunning said, ‘Well look, I have an outline from Stephen Miller for a horror picture that I’d like to do.’ He asked me if I’d be interested in maybe doing that as a first one with Cinépix and the second could be done later. Being young at the time… wanting to make a career in directing, I said ‘sure’. I looked at the outline and it seemed pretty interesting compared to a lot of the other slashers that were going on at the time.”
Mihalka’s first impressions were on point. My Bloody Valentine was unique compared with its commercial competitors, and perhaps to its detriment. On the surface it is all very conventional, though a few narrative tweaks may have worked against it at the box office. When you think ‘slasher’, you immediately have visions of a masked killer with a particularly devastating weapon, a steaming pile of eviscerated victims quivering in their wake, and the notoriously graphic My Bloody Valentine certainly delivers in those terms. But there’s no summer camp here, no leafy suburbia in sight. This isn’t your standard teen fare. It’s light on sex, almost bereft of nudity, and our killer doesn’t decimate a picture-perfect idyll full of bright young hopefuls. Exploitative slasher fare this may be, but My Bloody Valentine has one coal miner boot planted very firmly in reality.
Paramount were keen on picking up My Bloody Valentine for national distribution provided they could get it out for Valentine’s Day, which proved challenging given the technology at their disposal. As Mihalka would explain, “We had to be ready to open in 1,200 theaters across North America… it was one of the largest openings… One of the reasons that we were able to do it is that we didn’t know any better. We just figured we were good and smart enough technicians… and we were good enough organizers and filmmakers. Just because everybody else thought it was really tight and almost impossible, that just put more fire underneath us. ”
Axel: [referring to T.J.] I don’t think he likes being back in the mine very much.
Mayor Hanniger: Well, that’s too bad. Nobody tole him to go out to the west coast. It’s not my fault he couldn’t make it on his own. But now that he’s back here, he’s my son and he’s working in the mine.
It’s unlikely that Paramount expected anything close to the $59,800,000 that Friday the 13th raked in the previous year, $59,300,000 of which was profit, but with an increased budget of $2,300,000 they were no doubt expecting a lot more than the $5,700,000 it managed, which, compared to the likes of Prom Night ($14,700,000), Maniac ($10,000,000), and even Terror Train ($8,000,000), movies that arrived in theatres during the same period, was considered a huge disappointment for a production company who were sitting at the top of the slasher tree only months prior.
Despite its commercial shortcomings, My Bloody Valentine is superior to much of the what the sub-genre has to offer, not only in its ability to appease gore hounds with its infamously violent set-pieces, but with its location, mood, general aesthetics and a dash of social commentary that wasn’t standard practice for blood and guts productions of its ilk. The film’s writer, John Beaird, described My Bloody Valentine as “The Deer Hunter of horror films,” and though that may seem like a lofty comparison, he’s not far off the mark. My Bloody Valentine eschews the usual high school hi-jinks for an isolated mining community in Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s grim and claustrophobic enough to provide the perfect backdrop for a sub-genre that relies on isolation, but was hardly the relatable setting teens were used to, or the kind of premise they were queuing up to buy tickets for. The movie’s cast of young adults have their whole lives ahead of them, but not in the ‘you could be president of the United states’ figurative sense. Their futures are written in stone as a birth right, and they’re incredibly bleak.
My Bloody Valentine was released on February 11, 1981. Then the worst post-World War II economic downturn, Reagan’s recession began in 1980, unemployment levels peaking by December 1982 at an eye-watering 10.8%. For the first time in decades, a generation were facing the prospect of no real future or financial security. The movie’s dreary aesthetic certainly reflects that mood, and thanks to evolving mechanization and a higher awareness of the health risks involved, coal mining was no longer a profession you could hang your hard hat on. The fact that the movie’s doomed cast are young adults grinding out a living in the murky, dust-ridden catacombs of industrial Canada no doubt had a negative bearing on the film’s popularity among the teen demographic, but it makes for one hell of a moody setting, and, whether purposeful or a mere by-product of the film’s desired location, our killer’s coal mining gear acts as a fantastic metaphor for a doomed generation born into a dying industry.
Speaking on his audio broadcast The Night Time Podcast, Halifax resident Jordan Bonaparte would explain, “The script called for a mining town and it needed to be in a town that had seen better days and Sydney Mines, at that time, was going through tough times… There were mine closures, the economy was poor and people were losing their jobs — it had a drab vibe, so it was perfect for what they were looking for and they loved how rundown, rough and dangerous it was.”
Of all the ‘video nasties‘ condemned by the censorship boards, movie critics and anyone else reaching for the judge’s gavel during the early 1980s, the uncut version of My Bloody Valentine is more than worthy of its notoriety, though US audiences didn’t get to see the movie the way it was intended. UK audiences were fortunate enough to experience a pre-cut cinema print during the movie’s original theatrical release, but by the time it made it to VHS the heavily cut version was all that existed. My Bloody Valentine was significantly trimmed-down to qualify for an R rating in the US, with cuts to every single death scene. Even then, the Motion Picture Association of America sent it back for further cuts, meaning a total of 9 minutes were missing from the North American theatrical release, though according to Mihalka, 6 and a half minutes of that was expository footage that had no real bearing on the rest of the movie.
There’s a good chance this affected the movie’s box office clout even further. Horror fans weren’t necessarily aware of cuts back then, but the fact that the hugely popular horror fanzine, Fangoria, had printed stills of the movie’s footage prior to its release, giving fans a peek at what, for an incredible 28 years, they would never see in live action, no doubt reached a core section of the film’s demographic. The missing gore would become something of an obsession for genre fans. Paramount refused to release the footage, and only when Lionsgate acquired the rights for a 2009 release did it see the light of day. Paramount’s hard-line approach was due to the negative attention Friday the 13th received a year prior, but also because of the recent death of Beatles icon John Lennon, whose murder in December 1980 triggered a major backlash against violence in movies. Unfortunately, the original negative was either beyond repair or had long since disappeared, which meant that the missing footage was sourced from a 35mm print in Dunning’s storage facility. For those of you who have seen the 2009 release, it’s hugely noticeable. In fact, the inserted footage stands out so much that you know exactly when each murder is coming. It’s a bit of a killer suspense-wise, but other than that I find the inserts rather charming. Not only does the grainy quality bleed with low-budget authenticity, it acts as a stark reminder of one of the most notorious periods in horror.
This is all very intriguing stuff that lends My Bloody Valentine an added sense of lore, but how good is the actual movie? There’s obviously a ceiling on this kind of fare in terms of criticism, but it achieves what it sets out to in a way that puts much of the sub-genre to shame. It may not live up to many of the tropes that slasher purists expect, but as a grim slice of stalk-and-slash it takes some beating. The dank, isolated setting saturates you from the outset. As already stated, the historically rich Sydney Mines and its community were facing tough times at the turn of the 80s, and you can almost hear the town’s creaking bones. The desolation, the regression, the deterioration, it is all indicative of a fallen industrial stronghold and a closed-off society bereft of hope. The movie’s killer may swing the pick axe, but in many ways the guillotine has already been rolled out.
The mines themselves were a nightmare to shoot in. Filming took place 2,700 feet (900 meters) underground, and there were all sorts of air shortages and claustrophobia issues. It didn’t help that the proud Sydney mines community set about cleaning up the place in anticipation of the production crew. They were so excited about the fact that someone had chosen their home as the site of a movie that they transformed what was a beautifully decrepit location into something much more repectable. “Once the townspeople found out that we were actually going to shoot there, they all decided that we couldn’t simply shoot the mine the way it looked… and the town went out and spent $50,000 and repainted the whole thing,” Mihalka explained. “When we showed up, we just said, “Oh my God!” Actually, we started out already behind budget on the day we arrived because we had to spend $75,000 to return it back to its original state.”
The movie’s kills, in their uncut form, were absolutely gruesome for the time, and in terms of variety My Bloody Valentine is tough to top. How many slashers give you a pensioner frazzled in a tumble dryer, human hearts cut out and boiled, a decapitation by hanging, a pick axe through the chin and out through the eyeball, and a protracted nail gun attack? There are even moments of cannibalism to feast upon. There’s a reason why Quentin Tarantino cited the film as his all-time favourite slasher, and I’m tempted to agree with him. If you were new to the genre and wanted to finally see what all the fuss is about, this is a good place to start.
The only footage that doesn’t exist, asides from a missing frame involving a drowning, comes in the form of a death similar to that featured in Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood, a pair of lovers skewered unceremoniously together in an abandoned mine. “There was a scene with the two kids in the mine and they’re joined together forever,” Mihalka would say. “There was a whole set-up scene to that. They’re just necking and Tom’s lying on top of [Harriet] and the miner comes in and puts the [drill bit] through him. She’s got her eyes closed and thinks he’s just being a little frisky. She opens her mouth and her eyes just widen as he bleeds into her mouth. Then the miner goes whoomp! And [skewers] them both. That scene had to be taken out totally. It has disappeared and we’ll never see it.”
Even without that particular eyesore, the movie has grue in abundance. My favourite kill follows arguably the film’s most nail-biting sequence, one in which Helene Udy’s Sylvia has the back of her head impaled on a shower tap. The poor girl is lifted off her feet by Peter Cowper’s The Miner aka Harry Warden in a show of brute strength to rival Jason Voorhees at his most fearsome. Following an ungodly splatter of blood, she’s just left hanging there, water pluming from her open mouth in a visual motif that is truly heartless. Just take a look at the above image. It doesn’t do the entire sequence justice but it’s deeply disturbing, the kind of fabled moment that was whispered in playgrounds post-censorship. When it came to My Bloody Valentine, the make-up department did not fuck around. Canadian composer Paul Zaza’s score is also a winner. It’s so excruciatingly understated you barely notice it at times, but it works a treat, creaking like a hollow din in the cold, coal-driven darkness. It makes for a uniquely oppressive experience.
Jessie ‘T.J.’ Hanniger: We’ll have a party in the mine.
Howard Landers: Yeah. Beware of Harry Warden! ooooooohhhhh.
Hollis: Shut THE fuck UP.
Happy: Beware of what you make fun of, you little asshole.
Another thing I love is the movie’s backstory, one told by a local bartender, who hams it up to delirious levels as the Hitchcockian harbinger of death. As the character so ominously spells out, there hasn’t been a Valentine’s dance in the Sydney Mines for twenty years, not since a group of workers were buried alive following an explosion. A year later, the one remaining survivor, Harry Warden, returned from a spell at a mental asylum and took revenge on those he deemed responsible, cutting out their hearts and placing them inside heart-shaped candy boxes. Harry left a note, a warning that if the dance were ever to be held again, he would come back and kill everyone involved, and as folklore has it, every February 14th he returns to haunt the town’s smog-ridden shadows. This is the first year since the atrocity that the traditional dance is set to go ahead, but when dear old community stalwart Mabel turns up dead and looking like fried chicken, plans change. The fact that Chief Newby (Don Francks) neglects to reveal the nature of Mabel’s death in a move that spells the fate of an entire generation may shed some light on why Harry has never been captured.
This is a slasher, so don’t expect too much in the acting department, though the movie does provide a fairly effective sense of inner conflict thanks to a love triangle involving protagonist, T.J., former girlfriend and love interest, Sarah (Lori Hallier), and her new squeeze, Axel, an old friend who moved in on Sarah during a brief absence that saw T.J. shed his doomed profession for a possible future out west, only to slope back with his tail between his legs. Another quirk exclusive to My Bloody Valentine is the fact that the gang’s resident ‘fat boy’ lands, at least in my opinion, the hottest girl in the entire movie, which in a sub-genre renown for its beauty discrimination is refreshing to see, even if it did leave me feeling rather jealous. The character in question, Patty, is played by the agonisingly cute Cynthia Dale of Moonstruck fame, a luminous beauty who warms every dank frame. I know the 80s had an obsession with blondes, but if I was casting this movie there would be only one final girl, and I’m not referring to Ms. Hallier.
My Bloody Valentine also provides us with the standard twist-triggered-by-childhood-trauma, one so improbable on so many levels you suddenly realise you’re watching a notoriously formulaic and often silly sub-genre and not a ceaseless exercise in nihilism (just how did the culprit manage to conceal himself and commit so many murders without a Voorhees-like capacity to teleport?). The twist is so ludicrous it is totally at odds with the overall tone of the movie, and was clearly shoehorned in to set-up a sequel that never was. A year later, Jason Voorhees would acquire his iconic hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part 3, reducing My Bloody Valentine‘s indomitable Miner to also-ran status in the chock-a-block realms of slasherdom, at least compared with the franchise giants. If you ask me, it’s something of a shame. The character had all the perquisites to forge his very own franchise: a fearsome costume, an iconic mask, an interesting backstory… so much potential it’s not surprising that My Bloody Valentine would become one of very few non-franchise slashers to receive the reboot treatment. I’m yet to see the reboot, and to be quite honest I’m not in any rush to, but if nothing else it is testament to the movie’s legacy. Some slashers long for notoriety, some aspire to it, and fewer still manage to attain it. Others, like My Bloody Valentine, have notoriety in their blood. And they’re not afraid to spill it.