There was nothing in the 1980s that hulking homicidal monsters and knife-wielding maniacs hated more than a significant date on a calendar. Revenge? Sure. Pleasure? Maybe. But woo boy, if a holiday popped up, roughly 10-15 young people were gonna’ attend a party and immediately die. Buoyed by the runaway success of 1978’s Halloween—which itself was a play on the equally holiday-themed bloodbath Black Christmas—producers started pairing up festivities and slaughter in an effort to hit that sweet, bloody payday. As we know now, Friday the 13th—the most gleefully transparent of the Halloween ripoffs—turned into a mega-franchise all its own. But plenty of holiday slashers got lost to time, like Christmas Evil and New Year’s Evil, released one month apart from each other in 1980, or Terror Train, where college students host a New Year’s party on a train, on which they experience the terror of a killer dressed like Groucho Marx. But we’re here to talk about a slasher stuck somewhere in the middle, not quite forgotten but decidedly below the Freddy, Jason, and Michael Mt. Rushmore. Like, several miles below, down in the mines of My Bloody Valentine, a nasty, subtly subversive piece of work that turns 40 this week, or about double the age of your average slasher victim. Cuddle up with your beau, let’s discuss pickaxe murder.
For My Bloody Valentine, director George Mihalka turned the town surrounding the decommissioned Princess Colliery Mine in Novia Scotia into Valentine’s Bluff, a Canadian mining town where everyone is hyped to all hell for the first Valentine’s Day Dance in 20 years. The tradition was halted after two supervisors left the mine to attend the dance, failing to clock the dangerous methane levels and causing an explosion that trapped several workers. The only survivor, Harry Warden (Peter Cowper), resorted to cannibal in the time it took be rescued, and chomping on his coworkers’ severed legs sent him straight to a mental asylum. So surely it can’t be Harry Warden stalking Valentine’s Bluff in a miner’s outfit, delivering human hearts in chocolate boxes and driving a pickaxe into people’s skulls?
Something I really love about these 80s slashers is the way there was a formula and they were gonna’ stick to them, sense and logic be damned. The familiarity is the point; there’s a reason that the slasher aesthetic, despite the severed limbs and piercing screams, can be comforting. There’s a satisfying catharsis to getting scared in a recognizable way. So if the blueprint to get there was Holiday + Murder, it didn’t really need to make sense. My Bloody Valentine sticks to this idea with such brute-force absurdism it almost rounds back and becomes a deconstruction. There is no observable connection between Valentine’s Day and coal mining. If someone asked you to design a Valentine’s Day killer, how many tries would it take to land on a guy with a flashlight helmet holding a pickaxe?
But there is real subversion all over My Bloody Valentine that sets it apart, especially in hindsight. Mihalka joked in 2017 the crew had set out to make “The Deer Hunter of horror movies” which is…not what I’m willing to call My Bloody Valentine in a public place, but the film’s emphasis on the smalltown working class is a step above “these teens are all hornt and therefore must die.” The murders that take place in My Bloody Valentine aren’t punishment for immorality, they’re punishment for a lack of workplace safety; for a time when two bosses literally left their employees in the dark to die. (There’s a similar undercurrent in the original Friday the 13th, but with more of a focus on the sinfulness of it all.) You’re not exactly rooting for a bunch of innocent 20-somethings to get whacked in the head with an industrial tool, but that’s the point; it’s always going to be the young 9-to-5 crowd that feels the blowback of a system they didn’t create.
Look, that’s a lot to put on a film that also features a woman getting her head jammed against a leaky pipe so hard she becomes a human faucet. (An all-timer slasher kill!) But My Bloody Valentine has hidden depths. Occasionally, very literal hidden depths. The crew actually shot down in the mines, which only allowed for limited lighting because an extensive set-up risked actual methane explosion. Cinematographer Rodney Gibbins could only work with no-spark lights up to about 50 watts or, as Mihalka described it in 2005, “smaller than most people have in their kitchen.”
This gives a unique, old-school grain to the film’s third-act kills, a very real darkness that Mihalka uses to claustrophobic effect. It’s a smokiness. There’s a classic Giallo quality to the close-ups, when the miner’s headlamp illuminates only his victim’s eyes, like something out of a Luciano Ercoli thriller.
My Bloody Valentine is still ripe with slasher cliches. The acting remains janky, making the central love triangle grate more than it should. There’s absolutely no getting past the opening image of a heart tattoo on a bare breast, because the first victim must always be subtlety. But what are all slashers if not a jumble of cliches? And what makes a slasher into a slash-ic if not the boldness poking through? My Bloody Valentine is more unique than anyone seems to remember, a 40-year-old gem still worth mining.
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