“From the heart comes a warning, filled with bloody good cheer - remember what happened ... as the 14th draws near!”
I covered Patrick Lussier's enjoyable 3D remake of My Bloody Valentine some time ago, but now comes the chance to finally reappraise the much-loved original version now that it has been released on region-free Blu-ray from Lionsgate in its uncut form. The disc contains both the original theatrical print as well as the much stronger uncut version, which can be selected from the main menu.
Made in 1981, at the height of the Americanised stalk 'n' slash boom, this little exercise in assembly-line slaughter is actually one of the genre's shining lights. With John Carpenter's Halloween placing Michael Myers at the top of the carnage pecking-order, and Sean Cunningham's Jason Vorhees lumbering up the limb-strewn hill behind him, there is no question that those twisted and demented souls out for kill-thrills, teen-massacres and aggrieved vengeance from beyond the grave are too numerous to count. But the quality of the films that housed, or rather unleashed them often denied these blade-besotted bogeyman the respect that the most celebrated of cinematic psychos have gone on to attain. The list of movies with the single, endlessly regurgitated theme of “stab, hack and gouge” is eternal, but as well as Halloween, Friday The 13th, The Burning, The Prowler, Black Christmas, The Funhouse and Maniac, one film cleaved its way to the top of that steaming heap of chopped-up kills - and that was George Mihalka's tremendous My Bloody Valentine, a film that attempted to do for romance what Hitchcock did for motel vacancies.
Adhering to the date-murder ethos that was all-prevailing at the time - besides the obvious two reprobates, we'd had Bloody Birthdays, April Fool's Days, Black Sabbaths, Graduation Days, a New Year's Evil and far too many bad Santas filling up Christmas stockings with body-parts - one of the most potent blood-red letter days in the calendar was obviously the one when you willingly gave your heart to someone else. And naturally, this being a slasher flick, such a notion was to be taken literally. Set in the lonely, inclement rural hamlet of a mining town called Valentine Bluff, in Nova Scotia, Mihalka's film takes a full-blooded stab at the conventions of the form, cuts a dash with its supremely intimidating gas-mask-obscured killer, and slices through that home-grown staple of the hoary old town legend with fearsome gusto. Strangely quite cosy in its depiction of a beer-swilling, God-fearing blue-collar community, My Bloody Valentine gets points for accuracy. Mihalka took his crew and filmed the whole thing in the real-life pit-town of Sydney Mines, adopting its recently closed mine operation and lensing some galvanising seek-and-destroy encounters down there in the eerie lamp-lit tunnels. The feeling of a shut-away community that deals with things in-house is keenly evidenced, and even if the gathering of local victims are actually a teensy bit older than the usual teen-brigade that the genre so embraced, there is a pleasing sense of authenticity to the proceedings.
Chief of Police Jake Newby (a personable Don Francks assuming a very Tom Atkins kind of role - indeed, Atkins would go on to get that exact role in the 2009 remake) receives a gruesome warning that the town should not go ahead with its intended Valentine's Day Dance festivities, as it appears that someone from its dark past has returned to exact revenge on the people who left him to rot in a methane-filled and collapsed tunnel twenty years before. The notorious Harry Warden, who only managed to survive the disaster for a whopping six weeks because he ate the remains of his fellow miners, ended-up getting some righteous, pickaxe-swinging payback on the pit officials who ignored safety protocol and left him and buddies to die whilst they partied up-top at the annual dance. Incarcerated in an asylum after his mind collapsed as irrevocably as the mineshaft had done around him, it certainly seems as though he has gotten himself out again and made the pilgrimage back home. He always warned them not to hold another party like the one that sacrificed him and his friends, and for twenty years they've kept the deal. But all that's about to change ... over their dead bodies!
We have that often cringe-worthy gaggle of fodder for the killer to hone his skills upon, but My Bloody Valentine has always had something of a bonus in this department. For a start, the film is a proper mystery with a very likeable Scooby-Doo quality about it that genuinely has you guessing, and to go along with this, we have two very capable antagonists in Neil Affleck's mining-jock Axel Palmer and Paul Kelman's haunted soul, T.J. Hanniger, returning to the town after the traumas of years before like some dark prodigal son. That Axel is now seeing TJ's old flame, Sarah (Lori Hallier) is of no small consternation to her impetuous former beau. Looking a lot like Rufus Sewell, Kelman spends a lot of his time brooding, drinking and catching Sarah's eye. Axel, who appears to have no, ahem, axe to grind, is naturally both smug about the development and somewhat wary of TJ's storm-cloud arrival back on the scene. Yet, despite this rather obvious conflict being set up by the writers (Stephen Miller and John Beaird), the scenario is actually very believable, certainly far more so than seeing Supernatural's Jensen Ackles butting heads with Kerr Smith's Sheriff Axel in the remake, which just seems forced and contrived. Indeed, the whole shebang of this blighted, middle of nowhere town, permanently overcast and cold-looking, is credible. We may scoff at the vaguely Carry On-style image of young babes hanging off the arms of irascible blokes who, in some cases, are much older and seemingly much less appealing than the types of guys they could so obviously get their claws into, but this is also how a lot of these closed-in communities operate. Small-towns, little choice, it seems. Thus, when we see fat-faced oafish Hollis (Keith Knight), twirling what looks like a comedy-sketch moustache around his chubby jowls, whilst his adorable sex-kitten girlfriend dotes upon his every word, it shouldn't seem all that jarring. They've grown up together and their relationship is borne of a combination of genuine affection and, I've no doubt, no small degree of necessity. I mean the town needs babies ... even more so, considering the death toll that is about to strike it.
Naturally, the bunch are buoyed-up with some supposedly anarchic pranks and prat-falls from the group comedian. Every typical killer-cross-section of young Americans has the resident goof-ball amongst them, and My Bloody Valentine's entry for Most Annoying Nerd Not Wasted Quick Enough goes squarely to Howard, played all-too-well by Alf Humphreys. Yet even this prize jerk-off is nowhere near as annoying as the same type of irritant found in the likes of Camp Crystal Lake, and there is also a more serviceable reason for his hi-jinx in that working down in a dangerous mineshaft every day positively entitles him to act like a loon once he's come back out into the light. Mind you, you're just as apt to applaud as shriek when you see what, erm, befalls him. We've even got the mean-spirited old curmudgeon (ironically called Happy) behind the bar in the local tavern, cursing the antics and disrespect of the next generation and spouting deathly warnings that we just know they aren't going to heed. He is not just the typical “You're all doomed!” scaremonger and kill-joy, though. This guy, played by Jack Van Evera, actually has a trick or two up his own sleeve and reveals a very wicked sense of humour, himself. Aye, it's hardly a shocker that the last laugh will be on him, but the set-piece that sees him come unstuck sure is a horrible hoot when it finally comes around.
Of course, the main attraction is the Miner, himself. Is it actually old Harry? Or has someone else assumed his guise and modus operandi? Those of a younger generation may have only seen the remake, and, sadly, they will find only a few surprises here. But it is hard to imagine anyone slapping their heads in disbelief when that mask finally comes off and the killer is revealed. Whoever the Miner is, though, there can be no doubt that he is one dastardly figure of downright evil. The image is magnificent. The gas-mask, the blue boiler-suit (very reminiscent of Dawn Of The Dead's SWAT fatigues), the combat boots and the helmet lamp, poised to dazzle and blind his prey, are accoutrements that become pant-wettingly scary once the sun goes down. There is something of an insectoid visage to that mask, and the stifled breathing behind it makes him seem almost misleadingly asthmatic and wheezy when he comes after you. Though, I wouldn't go assuming that you can outrun him, folks. This guy has that unique bogeyman-ability to get around, ahead and on-top of you in the blink of a soon-to-be-gouged eye. And let's not forget that mighty pickaxe he's packing, eh? Hefting that ferocious weapon and literally hauling victims off their feet with it - he even carries one across a wide locker room before impaling her on a shower-pipe - he does fulfil that super-strong category of madman, but then no-one can possibly assume that he's been spending his day-times just sitting back and knitting woolly scarves to keep out that Canadian wind, can they?
But it is the gore that made My Bloody Valentine something of a cause-celebre back in its day, despite the fact that the film had been hacked-about with quite ruthlessly by the MPAA in America (the same truncated version then going on to play here in the UK). It was the level of violent imagination that went into the killings that helped the Miner stand apart from Jason (and his mum), that Myers kid and the whole slew of other deranged nut-jobs gathered out there in the celluloid shadows at that time. Although only briefly glimpsed in that cut down version, the poor old lady stuffed into the spin-dryer in the local laundromat was the stuff of gruesome legend. But, of course, we all knew about the censored scenes, because magazines like Fangoria and Gorezone made sure that we got to see most of that imagery, if only printed on the page as lavishly taboo stills. So now it is simply great to go back into the film and experience it as it was meant to have been seen all those years ago, with all of its notorious gore fully reinstated. What you need to remember is that although this is now a much stronger movie, it was still atmospheric and powerful enough to gain itself a cult following even without the very element that lay at its dark heart.
So, let's have a gander at the grue, eh? Bring on the gore!
Tom Burman's studio was responsible for the nasty stuff. They'd already worked on the ace 70's version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers for Phil Kaufman and the ultra-violent Robert Ginty-starring The Exterminator (which features an astonishing partial decapitation) and would go on to perform the feline transformations and arm-severing on Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People and then supply the bug-implosions and head-tearing of Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. Alongside fellow Americans Tom Savini and Dick Smith, Tom Burman's name appearing anywhere in the credits of a horror movie back in the early 80's brought a contented smile to a gorehound's face - I'm not counting the Italian offal-mongers at the moment, as they are an entirely different kettle of entrails. Now whilst it must have been depressing to have seen so much of his design work get removed so unceremoniously, the things that he came up with - and that we can all see now - are tremendously vigorous, unusual and gleefully macabre. We have the poor barbecued resident of the spin-dryer, her battered and charbroiled body lolling out of the door when the Sheriff sniffs something that doesn't quite smell of Comfort, and, even more grotesquely, little ol' Mabel is still spinning around the drum! There are hearts wrapped-up in Valentine chocky-boxes - one of them even becoming a feast for some genuinely ravenous (and aggressive) town mutts - and, in a coup de grace, we get to see one of them getting ripped out of a hewn chest. There's a nasty spike going through a breast, an arm getting sliced through, some impromptu cannibalism, an awesome decapitation (for someone who had very definitely been begging for it all along!), a couple of nails blasted through the noggin and, in one truly audacious moment, a pretty human head turned into an ornamental fountain. A drowning in boiling water, however, is not quite as effective as the ones seen in either Argento's Deep Red or Halloween II (which came out the same year as Valentine), though points can certainly be awarded for presentation of the main course that results from it. But the most extreme instance of wanton severity just has to be the admittedly simplistic pickaxe through the skull which, in Burman's possessed hands, sees to it that we watch as the blade goes up through the chin and then pops out through the eye-socket of the poor individual. It is top stuff, folks, if you like and admire this sort of now nostalgic FX-execution. No CG blood-letting here, just honest-to-goodness practical effects with latex and prosthetics. And, to show how much this Old School technique meant to him and the reason for redoing the kills in the first place, Gary J. Tunnicliffe did a lot of his makeup the same way for the equally gory remake. Steadily working ever since, Tom Burman now seems to be locked in the province of television, doing makeup fx for shows like Grey's Anatomy and Nip/Tuck, but he will always be one of the gory greats from those halcyon days of pre-cert VHS.
The film is reasonably well-photographed by Rodney Gibbons, who has now switched from lensing things like Scanners II and Screamers to directing TV films, and even has the Matt Frewer version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles to his credit. Here, he makes the most of the dank and desolate town and especially the shadowy tunnels below ground. One particular sequence, when a hapless hottie becomes ensnared by lots of falling overcoats that a playful killer is taunting her with, runs the risk of looking ridiculous, but it is down to the conviction of Mihalka and the nightmarish quality of Gibbons' hectic camera that the sequence actually becomes quite unnerving. The direction throughout is typically of the genre, nothing more and nothing less, but it is quite refreshing to have very few snap-edits, no jerky stuff and a lot of footage of the Miner as opposed to mere shadows, or just gloved hands poking out of the corner of the frame. A final axe-swinging tussle in the mine-cars looks a bit pedestrian now - this is no Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, that's for sure - but you have give Mihalka a pat on the back for attempting to give us more than we expected. And this wilful immersion continues with the little Country and Western ditty sung at the end of the film entitled The Ballad Of Harry Warden. Almost like the way that American Werewolf's Slaughtered Lamb pub in East Proctor entered into pop-cultural vernacular and the little nocturnal mantra of “One, two ... Freddy's coming for you” breathed life into the grim bedtime story outside of Elm Street, this actually lends a level of folk-tale credibility to the plot's longevity, providing the spectre of the Miner with a greater, and more embedded resonance.
As the shoot wore on, the crew wound-up committing to a gruelling twenty-four hour schedule that even saw the director and his second unit sleeping down in the mine. But this pressure and dedication to what could only, realistically, be a low-budget exploitation programmer that would probably play as one half of a double-bill, reveals something about the production that so many of its ilk were sorely lacking in - a real desire to come up with the goods and to please the target market. So many other two-bit horror flicks then, as now, just took off-the-peg plot-lines, rent-a-cast off-cuts and has-beens and threw them all together in a bloody, but bland stew of mostly risible under-achievement. My Bloody Valentine had the strength to climb out of the mire and shake itself down with pride. It isn't on a par with Halloween or the best of the other slicers and dicers out there, but it is remarkably fine entertainment in its own claret-flinging right. The story isn't just a fathomless succession of random murders - well, okay, maybe it is, but there is a definite pedigree to its bloodbath that makes many of the film's rivals look positively anaemic in comparison. Things like Prom Night, Terror Train and Hell Night were absolute trash then and no matter what new footage can be found for them and put back in now, they will always be trash.
Much better, by far, than so many of its kind, My Bloody Valentine is eminently enjoyable, genuinely mean and moody, packed with ruthless murders and a dark, oppressive tone, and bolstered by tremendous location work beneath the ground and a story that is pure small-town legend. This longer cut is the icing on the bloody cake, of course, and I cannot imagine why anybody would bother to watch the butchered theatrical print unless engaged in a before-and-after comparison exercise. The image of the Miner is a marvellous one and it is great to see that it was obviously so damn good that, unlike so many killer-remakes and remoulds, the newer interpretation didn't change a thing about his appearance. Plus, you can keep all your standard axes, knives and chainsaws, a dirty great pick-axe is the meanest mutha in the tool-shed if you want to go out and paint the town red. Big, vicious and, like Darth Maul's lightsabre, it's got two business ends to help you make your point.
Since this (un)Holy Grail has now come up from the Pit for air in its raw uncensored form, perhaps there is the chance that things like Friday The 13th Part II (also from Paramount) can make it back to us intact. I mean even the original Toolbox Murders is being dusted-off for Blu-ray, so maybe the job's a good 'un!
In the meantime, Harry Warden's out there somewhere, and he's got a bone to “pick” with you.
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