Slasher Saturdays: My Bloody Valentine (1981)

Much like Slaughter High, there’s been a heavy amount of curiosity on my part to finally sit down and watch My Bloody Valentine. However, unlike that film, there was no striking poster or promotional art to entice me. Instead, its title carried the sole weight of Spock’s meme-worthy eyebrow raise. After all, the film’s release came right within the time when the slasher sub-genre was commercially setting the multiplexes alight.

John Carpenter’s Halloween had ignited the trend in 1978. And Friday the 13th popularized it in 1980. In fact, 1981 proved to be a treasure trove of titles that cemented the legacy of the sub-genre, including Friday the 13th Part 2, Halloween II and Happy Birthday to Me. To its credit, My Bloody Valentine is a humble entry into the vast sea of slashers, shining in its small moments and subtle thematic concerns.

The 1981 movie is about the events that take place in a small Canadian mining town called Valentine Bluffs. The residents are marking their namesake by having the first Valentine’s Day dance in 20 years. The event was ceased due to an accident that took place in the mines. On the night of the dance, 2 supervisors left 5 of the minors to attend the event. Their failure to check the methane levels within the working environment resulted in an explosion that caused one of the mining tunnels to cave in and kill the remaining workers. The sole survivor was a man called Harry Warden.

The traumatic experience sends Warden into a spiral of madness, and in the year after his ordeal, he hunts down and kills the irresponsible supervisors. To make matters worse, he cut out their hearts and placed them in Valentine-themed candy boxes, along with a stern warning to the town to never put on the dance again.

Despite what seems like an overabundance of plot, My Bloody Valentine is surprisingly light on its feet. Part of this comes from the excellent sense of place and community the picture depicts throughout its running time. While most slasher movies feel route and frankly bored in the set-up of their victims, Valentine regales in it. As the mayor of the town says early in the movie to the central group of characters, “You’re supposed to be decorating the room, not each other.”

Valentine allows its teenage characters to be goofy, melodramatic and often as serious as a harmless Valentine’s Day card. This not only helps the movie in getting the audience to fear for their fates when the axe starts to grind for them, but it also neatly juxtaposes with the older generation characters.

Three of the teenage characters are pulling goofy expressions whilst being on their shift in the mines.

Most of the adult characters who are given the spotlight are authority figures who hold some position of power within the town. This varies from the mayor to the central police chief, Jake Newby (Don Francks). To them, the Harry Warden tragedy is very real and something to never be repeated again.

However, when someone starts leaving hearts in Valentine-themed candy boxes, they’re quick to act and cover up the incident. In so doing, they’re not willing to address, let alone have a serious conversation with the younger generation about what’s going on. In fact, the closest the teenage characters get to engage with the incident comes from a retelling of it via a disgruntled local barman.

Aside from the prolonged sequence playing with the harbinger cliche that would become one of the tropes of the sub-genre, it also fully demonstrates the sheer disconnect and how much of a joke the Warden story is to the younger generation. With this in mind, it also illustrates how the older generation is, in a sense, repeating the mistakes of the past by not fully being transparent with the younger generation. After all, the entire ordeal started with an act of negligence and goofing off, so the lessons of that not to be learned or heeded by the older generation is tragic in itself.

This theme of detachment between the younger and older generations would be explored with much more Biblical heft in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The ultimate killer reveal also tries to play into this theme insofar as a traumatic incident results in a little boy growing up to become an embodiment of the older generation’s fears of the same incident happening again. However, this feels murky at best and undeveloped at worst. Although, some kudos go to the writers for being self-referential by having the killer revealed to be someone called Axel (a funny homage to Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses fame and the central killer’s weapon, which is a pick axe).

T.J. attempts to console Sarah in the tail end of My Bloody Valentine.

The other big fixture of the screenplay is a love triangle between T.J. Hanniger (Paul Kelman), Sarah Mercer (Lori Hallier) and Axel Palmer (Neil Affleck). Conceptually, I like it due to how it paints the utter hormone and love-obsessed nature of its teenage characters. However, it feels one note in its execution. This is due to the setup for the dynamic. Originally, T.J. and Sarah were together. But this bond was severed due to the young man leaving his local town existence to make a life elsewhere.

Much of the movie is dedicated to T.J. apologizing and trying to get it on with Sarah again. However, the details of why the character left town and chose not to write to his then-girlfriend are superficial. The best we get is a brief exchange between T.J. and his father, who is the mayor of the town. He says, “It’s not my fault he could not make it on his own.” We also get a sense during this scene that T.J. also resents working in the mine again, which may be another reason why he left in the first place. However, this is reading between the lines. As a result, the dynamic always feels like it’s repeating itself. There’s a small moment where T.J. and Axel team up in the hope of saving their friends, but it’s a tiny slither of interest in an often circling pond of murkiness.

Paul Kelman elevates the material with his sardonic line deliveries as well as his smirking and suspicious facial expressions. However, his performance underlines how much T.J. is a giant red herring to lure the audience into believing that he is the killer of My Bloody Valentine. However, it feels like a missed opportunity, not only from the vantage point of the central dynamic but also from a direct wrestling with the disconnect between the generations due to his father being the mayor of the town.

Overall, the original version of My Bloody Valentine is a fascinating early slasher film. Its filmmaking (via long shots) allows moments to breathe with a rare authenticity that would not persist much in the sub-genre. And it’s genuinely interested in its teenage characters more then the vast majority of movies that would fill the sub-genre. However, aside from these virtues (including its central theme), it’s lacking in its central dynamic and a meaningful way for its mystery to tie into the disconnect between the generations.

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Written by Sartaj Singh

Notes from a distant observer:

“Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”

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