My Bloody Valentine (1981) Blu-ray Review: Superb Slasher Restored

My Bloody Valentine was, if not quite a box-office bomb, a severe disappointment. It was released right at the height of the slasher craze, a year after Friday the 13th had directly copied the formula of John Carpenter’s wildly successful Halloween, upped the gore factor, and turned what was a phenomenon into an entire genre. Cheap and easy to make, most slasher movies were throwaways, only interesting in their sometimes innovative and gruesome special effects. And despite hitting the basic tropes spot on (takes place on a holiday, has a masked killer in an interesting costume, and plenty of “teenagers” partying and sneaking off alone), My Bloody Valentine didn’t make a blip at the box office, nor did it spawn a franchise. It failed. It was also one of the best movies of the genre.

Directed by George Mihalka and starring a decent cast, none of whom broke out into major stars, My Blood Valentine on paper is merely one of the hundreds of anonymous crazy guy kills canoodling teens in as elaborate a way as the budget allows movies. And it has those elements. But it has a level of texture and reality in its non-horror scenes that elevates it above the crowd.

My Bloody Valentine takes place in Valentine’s Bluffs, a Canadian mining town where the workers crawl out of the mine, covered in soot and dust, just to race each other to the bar. Last one there buys the beer. There’s not a lot going on in the town, so everyone’s excited for the upcoming Valentine’s Day Dance. It used to be the yearly highlight of the town’s social calendar, until 20 years ago when a couple of mine supervisors took off for the party instead of staying on their duty. There was a cave-in, and after six weeks of digging, they found only one man alive, gnawing on the arm of his dead co-worker to survive. Harry Warden, the cannibal miner who was now insane, came back to town the next year, and carved out the hearts of those two supervisors, threatening to return if Valentine’s Bluff ever throws the party again.

That is the hoary and hokey urban legend of the town, and everyone except for the creepy old bar owner knows it’s hokey. The miners have their own problems, real ones. T.J. had gone west to seek his fortune, and came back to town with his tail tucked between his legs. In the meantime, his girl Sarah left him for Axel, another mine worker.

The typical scenario for this sort of movie is that there’s the creative weirdo (stand-in for the screenwriter) and the hunky guy, who’s a complete jerk and who you just know the girl shouldn’t be with. Except T.J. is sullen and angry. Axel’s not sensitive, and he’s a little controlling of Sarah, but he knows T.J. is prowling around for her. And they’re both good friends, or used to be.

It’s a cut above the more typical easy conflict, and while the characters and their miners friends are mostly stereotypes (the goofy guy, the fat party animal, and various others more generic than that), they’re played with a casual assurance. There’s more of a lived-in feel to these characters than your average slasher’s 23-year-olds trying to play teens.

And of course, there’s the murders. While at the preparations for the dance, the mayor is sent a special valentine: a big box of chocolates. Only instead of the candy, there’s a ripped out human heart, and a note, threatening the town not to put on the dance.

The mayor and the sheriff keep this information to themselves while they try to track down the central figure from that urban legend, Harry Warden. He’s supposed to be institutionalized but the institution has no record of him. Could he have returned to Valentine Bluffs to exact his revenge?

Murders pile up, and the sheriff (while keeping the lid on the real reason) cancels the dance, and forbids any partying in town. Whether a small town sheriff actually has that authority, I don’t know. Maybe in Canada. Anyway, the miners aren’t having it, and so they go out of town to throw their own party: up at the mines. Which turns out to be the perfect place for the climax to a slasher movie to be shot. Filmed in and around a real mine, the final set pieces of My Bloody Valentine are claustrophobic and genuinely filled with tension, particularly after a group of revelers decides to go down the mine shaft for a look-see, and fall right into the murderer’s hands.

Stylistically, My Bloody Valentine doesn’t have the intensity or meticulously crafted compositions of Halloween, though like all slasher movies it cribs Carpenter’s killer POV shots. But there’s a decent understanding of how long to draw tension out, and when to relieve it. Quite unlike Halloween and more like its contemporaries, My Bloody Valentine is an extremely gory film. So much so that the original release was given an X-rating, and only with severe cutting was it granted an R. That probably contributed to the poor showing at the box-office, since the edits left scenes non-sensical. The unrated director’s cut, included in this release along with the original theater release, restores most of these murders to their gory glory, and the effects are often astonishingly nasty.

That’s the point of this kind of movie, of course. And My Bloody Valentine serves up its chill and thrills admirably, though it avoids the nudity that’s typical for exploitation fare. All that’s required for a slasher is that the kills be suspenseful, the set pieces interesting and that the characters not act so stupidly that it becomes too embarrassing to watch. With My Bloody Valentine‘s grounded characters, even their stupid actions feel more real, and sometimes defy stereotypes: when the potential victim pool drops to two girls, one goes hysterical, and the other forces her to get her ass in gear, and refuses to give in to the terror. When T.J. and Axel have to go into the mine to find their missing friends, they prepare and throw together a quick plan. It’s little touches of humanity that raise My Bloody Valentine into being a real, if minor, horror classic.

My Bloody Valentine has been released on Blu-ray by Scream! Factory. The package contains two discs, one for the theatrical version of the film, the other for the uncut director’s version, which runs thre minutes longer than the theatrical. Both have been taken from a new 4k scan of the original camera negative, with a few odd shots in the uncut taken from other source material to make the film as complete as possible, though these sources are of obviously lower quality than the restored film.

On the disc with the uncut version, there is a new commentary track by the director, and a pair of video extras: a panel from the 2016 Bay of Blood horror convention, “35 Anniversary Cast Reunion” (47 min), and “Thomas Kovacs Performs ‘The Ballad of Harry Warden'” (5 min), with Thomas Kovacs (who played Mike, one of the film’s victims) performing the fun folk song that goes over the film’s end credits.

The lion’s share of the extras are on the theatrical cut’s disc, with over two hours of video extras: “My Anemic Valentine” (24 min), an interview with director George Mihalka, “From the Heart” (14 min), an interview with actor Paul Kelman, “Axel, Be My Bloody Valentine” (15 min), an interview with actor Neil Affleck, “Friends of Mine” (20 min), an interview with actress Lori Hallier, “Becoming Sylvia” (17 min), an interview with actress Helene Udy, “Broken Hearts and Broken Bones” (11 min), an interview with make-up and special effects designer Thomas Burman, “The Secret Keeper” (28 min), and interview with actor Rob Stein, and “Holes in the Heart” (12 min), a side-by-side comparison of different scenes from the theatrical and uncut versions of the film. There is also a still gallery, radio and T.V. spots, and a theatrical trailer.

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Kent Conrad

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