Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Bleeding Heart

For the crossover review of this film over at Kinemalogue, click here.

Year: 1981
Director: George Mihalka
Cast: Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier, Neil Affleck
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The legend goes that My Bloody Valentine's producers, when tasked with creating a new slasher film, decided to set the film on a holiday that hadn't been used up already in the early slasher boom. This was no small accomplishment considering that, only one year into the genre's heyday, Christmas had already been used a whopping four times (three in 1980 alone), Halloween was pretty well taken care of with John Carpenter's classic, New Years had been used twice, and even minor/non-existent holidays like Mother's Day, Friday the 13th, and Prom Night had already received the slasher treatment.

So they settled on Valentine's Day, just about the only recognizable holiday left after the developing genre had razed the calendar. By all accounts this should have been a supremely average affair, just like (most of) the rest, but this being Canada (well regarded as the best country for slasher films) and this being 1981 (the consensus pick for best year of the slasher Golden Age), the stars were aligned, producing a highly enjoyable film, even after being mercilessly slaughtered by the MPAA.

And it is here, even more than any other slasher film with similar problems (and there are more slashers hurt by the MPAA on this planet than there are trees) that we reach a point of contention. The unrated cut of My Bloody Valentine, finally released in 2009 in concurrence with the release of the remake, adds so much to the film that it renders it virtually unrecognizable. The addition of extended gore scenes makes the film undeniably better and far more coherent, although the original cut is still nothing to shake a stick at. Although I would rather gush (quite literally, in some cases) about the unrated version, I'll be sticking to the original theatrical print for this review, considering that it was the only one that existed for some thirty-odd years.

Sorry to strip mine the film, man, but it's only fair.

The small Canadian mining town of Valentine Bluffs (unique for the sub-subgenre of Canadian slashers, there is no visible strain to pretend it takes place in America, allowing the regional accents and Moosehead beer to flow freely) has a problem. They haven't had their traditional Valentine dance in twenty years thanks to a horrific accident in which a group of miners were buried alive because their supervisors left early so they could attend the dance.

Harry Warden (Peter Cowper), the sole survivor of this ordeal, sought revenge the next year and cut out the supervisors' hearts, putting them in heart-shaped candy boxes and delivering them to the dance, vowing to seek revenge on any future Valentines celebrations the town will ever have. The town officials assume enough time has passed that the institutionalized Harry will no longer loom over the citizens' minds, so they reinstate the dance for the first time. They'll soon learn that maybe they should have stuck with candy hearts and pre-packaged Snoopy cards.

Our Meat for the evening is a sizable array of young miners, preceded by a delectable tray of hors d'oeuvres - a larger than usual adult presence. There's Howard (Alf Humphreys of Funeral Home), the obligatory prankster who, as an apprentice, is the butt of scorn from the older workers; Dave (Carl Marotte), a handsome wallflower who becomes significantly less handsome when he inexplicably shaves halfway through the film and turns into a twelve-year-old; Michael (Thomas Kovacs), a human male with - presumably - a pulse; Hollis (Keith Knight), who thanks to his bristly mustache and burly frame looks like a cross between the walrus and the carpenter; Axel (Neil Affleck, also of Visiting Hours, and who is now a supervising animator on The Simpsons of all things), a hotheaded, jealous blond; and TJ (Paul Kelman), the mine owner's son who has just returned after attempting to make it on his own in the west coast. Which coast - and whether he was trying to be an actor in California or a fisherman in British Columbia is anyone's guess.

Because there is a holiday framework here, nearly every single one of these men has valentines, but the only three we should be concerned with are Harriet (Terry Waterland), a virginal barmaid and eventual recipient of Michael's member; Patty (Cynthia Dale), the bubbly counterpart to Hollis; and Sarah (Lori Hallier), a spunky blonde and Patty's best friend, who is currently dating Axel although she pines for TJ, with whom she was going steady before he left town. His unexpected return racks up tensions between him and Axel, but while they prepare to go all MMA on one another because a lady is a prize to be won by fisticuffs and spitting, Sarah quietly makes her own decision and sits back to watch the punches fly.

I mean, it's not like romantic rivalries within this winsome group are exactly fraught with tension.

After several ominous deaths (in which the town leaders receive valentines with threatening poems), the dance is cancelled for good, but the Hubris of Teenager knows no bounds. One boner leads to another and the kids end up having a party in the mine, accidentally incurring the wrath of The Miner (Peter Cowper), a pickaxe-wielding bully in a gas mask who is presumably Harry Warden out for his promised revenge. 

The deck is stacked with such a solid premise (don't you just love baroque, holiday-related killer MO's?) that it barely even registers that the characters aren't perhaps quite as fleshed out as they could be. Though, this being Canada, they are all immensely likable and easy to tell apart, a blessing which I shall not overlook.

And even in spite of the butchering My Bloody Valentine received from the MPAA, the kills are remarkably scary, an astronomical achievement in the genre. Cowper's physical performance as the Miner is looming, threatening, and bubbling with seething anger. If he were but two stories taller, he could give genre legend Kane Hodder a run for his money. But his physicality combined with the menacing oddity of his costume - a gas mask and a pickaxe - provides a truly memorable villain, a unique occurrence for a one-off slasher like this.

It also helps that he's so thoughtful - look, he even gave us a present!

With intense kills and a classic antagonist, it would take a whole lot of going wrong to undo the value of this film. This patently does not happen although, as I have mentioned, many of the characters are a little more one-dimensional than they could have been. Some early scenes tend to drag before we get a bead on who this group is and how they interact, weighed down a little too much by shaky acting.

This dynamic is typically buoyed by the presence of Hallier, whose performance as Sarah is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the cast, including the adult performers. It's a crying shame that she is forced to wring chemistry from the damp dishrag that is Paul Kelman's TJ, but her performance is so committed and pitch perfect that it glosses over many of the clunkier moments in the script.

Really, it's not even as bad as I'm making it out to be, it's just a slight annoyance. Much like the gamely sexist cockfighting between Sarah's romantic rivals, which thankfully peters out by the end of the second act. But for all the issues presented by the ensemble, Valentine Bluffs really feels like a small town, an ambience achieved by the characters' familiarity with one another and the limited, familiar-looking locations. Grounding these characters firmly in a reality makes it much easier to overlook some of their shortcomings.

And the final act of the film is so tremendous, it's impossible to complain at any length about anything in the entire movie. As the kids descend into the mine and begin to be picked off in earnest, an elongated chase sequence begins as the split-up survivors attempt to escape the twisting tunnels. It is a rapid, harrowing jumble - nobody knows where anybody else is or even who might still be alive as the desperate groups fight to find a way out.

The darkness in the mineshaft scenes is shot with aplomb, utilizing shadows significantly instead of showering the frame in blackness as even the best of Canadian slasher directors were wont to do. It's claustrophobic and frantic with an admittedly mystifying but electric conclusion. 

It's a true shame My Bloody Valentine never earned itself a franchise, because it's absolutely one of the best standalones in the business, a flawed but thrilling bit of Golden Age terror.

Before we sign off, it is absolutely imperative we discuss the unrated cut for a brief moment. The extended gore scenes are essential viewing, providing some of the grimmest grue of any slasher I've ever seen. It's exactly the kind of scintillating gore that would have sent this film over the edge, injecting the film with enough fun to overpower the slower moments in totum.

Also a gore shot is crucial in understanding just what the hell happens in the final reel. Its absence is sorely felt in the theatrical cut. With these additions, My Bloody Valentine is a just about perfect slasher movie. Unfortunately, it's rather too late to consider them "canon" but I would urge anybody and everybody interested in this film to seek out this version, not the original DVD release.

Killer: The Miner (Peter Cowper) [aka Axel (Neil Affleck)]
Final Girl: Sarah (Lori Hallier) feat. TJ (Paul Kelman)
Best Kill: Sylvia is impaled on a shower rod and water (mixed with blood) squirts out of her mouth.

Sign of the Times: Not only do the boys seem afflicted with such terrible arthritis they can't button their shirts, but TJ's neckerchief chokes out any chance of this film being timeless.

Scariest Moment: The survivors must climb up a narrow shaft on a ladder while Patty undergoes a mental breakdown.
Weirdest Moment: TJ and Axel share an angry harmonica duet in a junkyard.
Champion Dialogue: "You're supposed to be decorating the room, not each other."
Body Count: 12; not including four miners killed in a flashback cave-in.
  1. Blonde Woman is impaled on a pickaxe.
  2. Supervisor is pickaxed in the chest.
  3. Supervisor #2 is killed offscreen.
  4. Mabel is pickaxed and stuffed into a clothes dryer.
  5. Bartender is axed through the chest/eye, depending on which cut you watch.
  6. Dave has his face shoved into a pot of boiling hot dogs.
  7. Sylvia is impaled on a shower unit.
  8. Michael and
  9. Harriet are impaled by a mining drill offscreen while they have sex.
  10. Hollis is shot in the face with a nail gun.
  11. Howard is hung and (in the unrated cut) decapitated by the rope.
  12. Patty is pickaxed in the gut.
TL;DR: My Bloody Valentine is hurt by some shallow characters, but is a surprisingly scary and effective slasher.
Rating: 8/10; 9/10 if we're counting the unrated cut, although considering that it only surfaced five years ago, I daresay it doesn't count.
Word Count: 1854


  1. So, did they ever make a Labor Day? I mean, other than Falling Down.

    P.S. If we ever do the switcheroo, this sounds like a nice softball. Gore! Reasonably pleasant characters! Sense! Incidentally, I have compiled a List, bearing in mind your previous capsule reviews, Thing From Another World, et al.

    1. That's kind of you! I was thinking we could maybe choose three films, two undeniably great ones, one crappy one (but not soul-suckingly so). It could be a lot of fun!

    2. Also - no Labor Day to my awareness, but there IS a Memorial Day and it is one of the single worst pieces of crap I have ever seen.

    3. Three it is, then:

      The Day the Earth Stood Still (which everyone sez is great, tho I disagree), Invaders From Mars (...some like it), and Them! (consensus-excellent and I concur, genesis of the giant bug movie more or less). Depends on your definition of "soul-sucking" tho.