I was originally going to post a review of Eddie and The Cruisers this week, but at the last minute, I decided that I should do a review of My Bloody Valentine instead, in honor of the holiday. I’d seen the remake in the theatres back in 2009 and enjoyed it very much, and I thought I should see the original.
Both decisions were terrible mistakes, and I apologize for them. Eddie and The Cruisers will be up next week.
The 2009 version of My Bloody Valentine was not a great movie or even, by most measures, a good movie. But it was a good slasher movie. It knew what people like in a slasher movie, and by god it slasher movied just as hard as it possibly could.
The original…did not. No tits to be seen. The kills either happen off-screen or hide the point of impact, then try to make up for it with some moderately gruesome aftermath.
There’s no excuse for that. This movie was made in 1981. The slasher craze was in its early stages, but it was definitely up and running. The makers of My Bloody Valentine knew the formula. Hell, their adherence to it in other areas is damn near slavish. So why skip the most important parts?
To be fair about the killings, I may have been a bit spoiled by Tom Savini, but he isn’t the only gig in town. Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were made without him. And while I certainly don’t need tits to enjoy a movie, they’re more or less standard fare in a slasher…and more importantly, there are several scenes where it would have made more sense for them to be there, but they’re hidden. Are they teasing us on purpose? Did I get a made-for-TV cut or something?
(Looking it up on Wikipedia, it seems I did, in a way. Apparently the theatrical version was heavily censored thanks to a backlash against violence in the media following the death of John Lennon. First recommendation then: watch the extended version if you can.)
This movie is such an utterly generic, paint-by-numbers slasher flick that you almost think it’s a parody. If it had been made today, it almost certainly would be. But no, this was made in 1981, so it’s actually a shameless rip-off in the “follow the leader” mode, as so often happens in the wake of genre-creating successes:
“It needs to be set on a special day. All the big money-makers are set on a special day. But all the good ones are already taken: Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Christmas, even Mother’s Day! What’s left? Fourth of July? Thanksgiving? No, no…for cryin’ out loud, we’re gonna end up doing Arbor Day here…I know! Valentine’s Day! We can do a whole…thing…with hearts!”
And so they did.
Spoilers, such as they are, start here.
The movie begins with me calling bullshit.
Specifically, the opening scene is of a couple going into a cold, dark, filthy coal mine to have sex. They wear mining gear (so sexy!) until they reach their chosen assignation spot, then the woman pulls off her mask and helmet to reveal lacy white underwear and perfectly coiffed hair (bulllllshiiiiit!). The man refuses to take off his mask, instead burying one end of a double-sided pickaxe into the wall and shoving her onto the other.
The reason he doesn’t take off his mask, of course, is because doing so would give away the only twist this movie has. I think we may be supposed to wonder if the killer murdered and switched places with the man she thought she was coming down with, but nothing is ever made of that. When we do find out who the killer is, this scene doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Skip forward to an indeterminate but probably short time later. The town of Valentine Bluffs is dealing with two events that are of great importance in a town so small:
1) The town is having its first Valentine’s Day Dance in twenty years, and the whole town is going all-out. Every square inch of flat surface is festooned with hearts and red-and-white streamers. Young women are buying new dresses. People are talking about virtually nothing else.
2) TJ Hanniger, son of the owner of the coal mine which is pretty much the entire economy of Valentine Bluffs, has returned from a failed attempt to make a go of it on his own on the West Coast. He is not receiving a warm welcome. His father has put him to work in the mine, his girlfriend and best friend from the old days – Sarah and Axel by name – have moved on in his absence and gotten together with each other, none of his friends are particularly glad to see him. At first, I felt bad for him, thinking it was a case of the people who stayed being angry with him for trying to leave (“You think you’re better’n me?”), but no, it turns out that he just took off without telling anyone and didn’t call or write until he came crawling back. Not endearing.
Far too much of the rest of the movie is focused on the drama created by #2, especially the love triangle between TJ, Sarah, and Axel. TJ wants to pick up where he left off despite his neglect, Axel is possessive to the point that you expect him to start marking his territory, and Sarah fails to stand up to either until they come to blows in the third act.
Unfortunately, it’s the events around #1 that we really came to see. As I mentioned before, Valentine Bluffs hasn’t had a Valentine’s Day Dance in twenty years. There’s a reason for that, and the reason is given to us by this movie’s blatant and shameless rip-off of Crazy Ralph from Friday the 13th.
(“I know! He’ll say ‘this town is accursed’, instead of ‘it’s got a death curse’! That’ll make him distinctive!”)
Twenty years ago, there was an accident in the Hanniger Mine. Two supervisors were in a hurry to get to the Valentine’s Day Dance, and left their posts while there were still five men in the mine. There was an explosion, and five miners were trapped. Six weeks later, only one was found alive: one Harry Warden, who had resorted to cannibalism to survive. It isn’t clear if he murdered his fellow accident victims, or if he simply fed on their corpses; either way, it had driven him quite mad, as you can imagine. A year later, he killed the two supervisors with a pickaxe and left their hearts in Valentine candy boxes, warning the town that if they ever celebrated Valentine’s Day again, he would return.
Of course, that threat was made twenty years ago, and Harry Warden has been in a mental hospital all that time, so none of the young people take it seriously anymore.
Unfortunately, it seems that Harry wasn’t bluffing. Somebody is killing people, cutting out their hearts, and sending them to the Sheriff and Mayor Hanniger in candy boxes, with little Valentines.
(Unfortunately, the annoying-as-fuck comic relief character who hasn’t updated his schtick since sixth grade isn’t one of them. He doesn’t die until almost the end, by which time you will wish to kill him personally.)
As always happens in these movies, the authorities refuse to tell anyone what’s happening for fear of “causing a panic”. I have to ask: what are people going to do in a “panic” that’s worse than what happened because they didn’t know to beware of danger? Just what is involved in a “panic” anyway?
To wit: because the authorities cancel the dance, but don’t tell anyone why, the young people of the town throw their own party in the cafeteria at the mine…and the mine is the killer’s home territory.
TJ and Axel come to blows at the party, and in an attempt to cheer Sarah up (and perhaps add a bit of spice to a still-mundane evening), several of their friends arrange for a field trip down into the mine itself.
TJ protests – “You know the rule: no women in the mine!” – but he is overruled.
(Also: “No women in the mine!” – WTF?)
Of course, the killer’s rampage begins in earnest while the characters are still down in the mine. While most of the partygoers flee, TJ and Axel set aside their differences and descend into the mine to rescue their friends. This is actually a good moment. TJ and Axel have been at each other’s throats the entire movie, sometimes literally, but there have been more than a few hints that they were the best of friends before TJ took off, and when push comes to shove, they trust each other completely.
In fact, let me take this moment to give props to the two other things this movie does surprisingly well. One is a moment, and the other is a mood.
The moment is when the sheriff enters the Laundromat, calling for the proprietress who, though she has no official authority, is one of the town elders. When he walks past a running drier that seems to be filled with blood, the movie could have drawn our attention to it, scare chords and all. Instead, the movie leaves it part of the background, almost as easy for us to overlook as it is for the Sheriff. If you miss it, you get a shock scare.
If you spot it, you get slowly building dread.
I grew up in a town like Valentine Bluffs. The Population sign at the town limits has four digits, and the one on the left is a two or a three. Single-employer economy. Depressing crackerbox houses, depending on what part of town you’re in.
What this film has done right is capture the quiet desperation of a place where people know what they’re going to be from the moment they’re born, and they know that they’re going to be that thing until the day they die. Where they go drinking after work every night, and where everyone is so starved for something different that a Valentine’s Day Dance at the Union Hall is the event of the decade.
The filmmakers also do an amazing job of capturing the group dynamics of people who’ve known each other since they were two years old. Remember that annoying-as-fuck comic relief that I said hadn’t updated his schtick since sixth grade? I was being literal. You just know that guy has been the group’s class clown since kindergarten, and he’s still doing the routines that wowed ‘em all back in the day.
You can also tell that the couples have been together since high school. Ever wonder why TJ and Axel fight so hard over a girl who refuses to make up her mind? Because in a town this size, their options are limited.
Anyway. TJ and Axel descend into the mine, and –
I’d like to make a quick note here. If I’m ever in a situation like the one in the mine, where an emergency is in progress and someone is refusing to move, struggling and squirming and whining at every step, I will either leave them or, if there is some reason I can’t, I will simply punch them in the fucking head until they stop moving and then drag them.
And while it isn’t an issue in this movie, I would also like to take this opportunity to state that if I am ever in an emergency situation with parents and their children, I will not trust the parents. I know full well that you will kill me with your teeth to prevent your little sweetums from getting a boo-boo on their knee, and be proud of yourself for doing so. You walk in front of me, thanks.
TJ and Axel descend into the mine, where we learn why Axel trusted TJ so easily: he knew he was in no danger, because he was the killer all along, because – and this comes right out of East Nowhere – his father was one of the supervisors murdered by Harry Warden, a murder he witnessed, driving him insane.
This is why the opening scene makes no sense. In his Axel persona, Axel is obsessed with Sarah. In his “Harry Warden” (Killer Miner) persona, he’s a silent berserker in the mold of Michael Myers. So to seduce the girl to her death in the mine, he would have had to do it as Axel, but Axel wouldn’t…
Never mind. It’s hardly the most nonsensical thing to ever come out of a slasher movie, and in the context of a slasher movie that fails as a slasher movie, it’s hardly important. If you, like me, are lucky enough to have a loved one who would like to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a slasher movie night, see the remake.