My Bloody Valentine
Special Edition (1981)
Directed by George Mihalka
Starring Neil Affleck, Cynthia Dale, Don Francks, Lori Hallier, Patricia Hamilton
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Release Date: January 13, 2009
Slasher movies have always been an acquired taste, but ever since I was a kid they’ve been one of my secret guilty pleasures. When I was 10 years old I first saw the original Friday the 13th late one Saturday night on a local horror movie show called “Dr. Gruesome’s Movie Morgue.” I saw a lot of the classics of the era courtesy of the good doctor, a goofy mad scientist with horn-rimmed glasses and a white mop head for a wig and his hunchbacked assistant Skeeter who wore an eyepatch and a clown wig. Once my family got cable I graduated from Dr. Gruesome (although I occasionally visited) to the USA Network’s Friday and Saturday night wee hour schlock parade USA Up All Night with alternating hosts Rhonda Shear and Gilbert Gottfried. That’s where my exposure to the vintage hack-and-slash epics of the 1970s and 1980s reached unparalleled heights with non-stop viewings of countless Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels and many others. But one that always stood out from the typical blood-drenched teen horror fare with its mature characters, dark and gritty atmosphere, and relentless murder sequences was 1981’s My Bloody Valentine, a damn fine slasher flick from the sub-genre’s heyday.
Filmed, edited, and released in an absurdly brief timeframe of six months (which these days is the average gestation period for a Friedberg/Seltzer piece of shit parody flick), the movie was put together on the basis of a crude outline titled “The Secret” and the producers having chosen Valentine’s Day to capitalize on the growing trend of holiday-themed horror movies. With relative newcomer George Mihalka at the helm and a cast and crew comprised mostly of fresh faces creating the engine that drove the hastily-assembled production (financed and filmed in Canada) to its set-in-stone February 1981 theatrical release, the makers of My Bloody Valentine achieved the impossible and the film was completed with time to spare. Then the shocking December 1980 murder of music icon John Lennon suddenly had Tinseltown up in arms and on its annual “less violence” bent (which they go on every few years), and the prejudice the Motion Picture Association of America’s Ratings Board had against Canadian horror filmmakers getting into bed with major Hollywood studios couldn’t help the sticky situation Mihalka and company found themselves in. My Bloody Valentine‘s graphic murder scenes earned the film the dreaded “X” rating and Mihalka was forced to excise the majority of the blood and gore so the movie would receive a more financially sound “R” rating and producers John Dunning and Andre Link wouldn’t lose their distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. The brutal but highly creative death scenes were edited down to the point of being nigh incomprehensible and what started out as an intense and effective horror film ended up a watered down murder mystery as bland as a PG-13-rated Asian ghost story remake. In short, they took the bloody out of My Bloody Valentine.
Despite failing to find an audience during its initial release in the States, the film has developed a cult following over the years. Quentin Tarantino has even said it was his favorite slasher film. With this weekend’s release of a 3D remake Lionsgate — the studio behind the remake, in conjunction with Paramount — has presented fans of the original My Bloody Valentine with a true gift: a special edition DVD with an array of bonus features including the long talked-about uncut version with all the gory death scenes complete and intact. Although the uncut version is around three minutes longer than the R-rated 1981 theatrical cut and Mihalka himself has said up to nine minutes was originally edited from the film to avoid the cursed X, not to mention that the lost scenes of hardcore bloodshed aren’t exactly in the best shape, this is the edition of My Bloody Valentine fans have been clamoring for since the movie first hit movie screens 28 years ago.
For the citizens of the small mining town of Valentine Bluffs the only tradition they hold dear is the annual Valentine’s Day dance held at the Union Hall, until the fateful night of February 14, 1961. That night several men were still down in the Hanniger Mines working while their two supervisors decided to knock off early to attend the dance. A methane explosion caused a cave-in trapping every man in the mine. After six weeks of digging, the rescue crew found only one survivor, Harry Warden (Peter Cowper). Warden managed to stay alive by feeding on the flesh of his fellow miners and came out quite out of his mind. A year later Warden left a mental institution and returned to Valentine Bluffs to exact bloody revenge on the two supervisors for leaving him and the other trapped miners to die. He carved out their hearts and left them in heart-shaped candy boxes with the warning that if the townsfolk continue to hold the Valentine’s Day dance every year he will return to kill those who refuse to heed his words.
Twenty years have passed since the tragic cave-in and Harry’s first reign of terror. The people of Valentine Bluffs have decided to let the past be the past and hold the first dance in years. T.J. (Paul Kelman), the son of the town’s mayor and mine owner (Larry Reynolds), has returned to the town to work in the mine after a failed attempt to make a life for himself on the West Coast and finds that things have changed. His beloved girlfriend Sarah (Lori Hallier), angered that T.J. took off without even telling her goodbye, has taken up with his old friend and co-worker Axel Palmer (Neil Affleck). T.J. makes no bones about wanting Sarah back but she’s still nursing the old wounds. Meanwhile a mysterious phantom wearing Harry Warden’s mining suit and breathing mask has also returned to Valentine Bluffs to fulfill Warden’s dark promise. Once bodies start popping up with the hearts removed the mayor and Police Chief Jake Newby (Don Francks) attempt to keep the news from spilling out for fear of creating a panic while they conduct their own investigation into whether or not Harry Warden has come back after all these years. As a precaution they cancel the dance, so T.J. and his friends and co-workers decide to hold their own makeshift dance in the recreation room at the mine. But this party is going to have one dangerous uninvited guest….
In its castrated form My Bloody Valentine didn’t have much of a chance. A good slasher flick lives and dies by the strength of its violence and Mihalka’s was robbed of its lifeforce by the hypocritical moral crusaders at the MPAA. The result bore strong resemblance to a overly intense episode of Murder She Wrote. Now that Lionsgate Home Entertainment has rectified that past misgiving with the restoration of the film’s copious blood-drenched murder moments, the film has finally become what it was always meant to be. Even though with its previously deleted footage, My Bloody Valentine at its bloodiest still pales in comparison to most of the hard “R” and unrated horror flicks stocking the DVD shelves at your local Best Buy, seeing the film in its mostly intended form after many years of hushed rumors and blind alleys is like the discovery of buried treasure for the gore-loving buccaneer in us all.
Now that the lost footage safely back in place, My Bloody Valentine is a much stronger film than it was before. With the intensity of the Miner’s violence raised to levels rarely seen from a major studio-released horror during in that era, the film grows darker and the suspense is ratcheted up more than a few notches. Speaking of the Miner, the pickaxe-wielding monster in the haunting bug-eyed mask who sounds suspiciously like Darth Vader whenever he breathes (and should have been the iconic anchor of a healthy stalk-and-slash franchise like his masked peers Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, to name but a few) has at long last become a terrifying presence and My Bloody Valentine will soon no longer be seen as the red-headed stepchild of 1980’s horror.
Unlike most of the other failed slasher flicks released during the Golden Age such as Madman and Silent Night Deadly Night, it’s refreshingly free of cheese. Tightly scripted while ticking off the trappings of Dead Teenager Movies with a loving nod, My Bloody Valentine tells a more interesting story than you would find in a movie like this. Instead of vacuous teenagers running around just waiting to be viciously murdered, the central characters here are likable working-class schlubs whose lives consist of working and spending their off hours pounding down brewskis at the local tavern. The characters of My Bloody Valentine are the stuff of Bruce Springsteen songs and more relatable than the usual slasher flick cannon fodder. They’re also not your typical pretty faces. Even the characters in this movie who don’t get much face time can still make an impression with their realistic visages and Northern accents.
On the technical side My Bloody Valentine succeeds where many have failed. Cinematographer Rodney Gibbons, working on a limited budget, gives the film a rich and dark look that really makes the most of the overcast Nova Scotia locales and impressive mine setting. Mines have always been scary places to venture, but rarely have they been as terrifying as they are presented here. Paul Zaza contributes a solid musical score that underscores and heightens the on-screen tension without overpowering it. Veteran make-up effects specialist Thomas R. Burman and the FX artisans under his supervision can now take pride in knowing that the terrific gore footage they worked tirelessly on towards a tight deadline has been unearthed for fans of the film to fully enjoy. From pickaxes going through someone’s neck and poking out their eyeball to a hapless female victim literally becoming a shower head, the work on display here is crude but highly effective and even in rough and unrestored form makes My Bloody Valentine a much stronger entry in the slasher genre.
The cast assembled by George Mihalka is a solid one stocked with moderately-talented character actors whose unfamiliarity increases their relatability in the story. Paul Kelman makes an affable leading man equally romantic, heroic, and likable. His acting, like most of the cast, is understated and convincing. Lori Hallier ably portrays his conflicted love interest Sarah. Completing this love triangle is Neil Affleck giving a good show as Axel, the ruddy-faced Ralph Bellamy of this romantic entanglement. Since My Bloody Valentine Affleck has racked up credits mostly in animation doing a lot of technical work on The Simpsons. Canadian acting scene mainstay Don Francks (whose credits include Finian’s Rainbow, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I’m Not There, and voice work in Heavy Metal, Rock & Rule, and on the mid-1990’s X-Men animated series, he played Sabretooth) gives a fine performance as another mainstay of the horror genre, the dedicated town sheriff out to stop the Miner’s reign of terror. Peter Cowper only gets to show his face as Harry Warden briefly in flashbacks at the beginning of the movie but the rest of the time he’s wearing the Miner’s killing gear and wielding his pickaxe like a lumberjack from Hell. Through presence and movement Cowper makes this monster as stark and relentless as the worse figments of our nightmares. The other stand-outs in the cast include Keith Knight as seasoned miner Hollis and Alf Humphreys as the goofball Howard.
Director George Mihalka brings all these elements together into a cohesive product that manages to entertain and thrill without repulsing or ever being boring. He manages to deliver some choice shock moments and ramp up the suspense where it counts. The final half-hour is a great creepy thrill ride set almost entirely in the dimly-lit mine, a great frightening location for the final confrontation with the Miner. With the death scenes restored to showcase the fantastic FX work by Burman and co., My Bloody Valentine can now be considered complete. What the self-righteous cowards at Paramount and the MPAA took away 28 years ago has been returned to its rightful place and what was once a chilling yet bland psycho-on-the-loose flick is now a great, underrated entry in a unjustly-maligned horror subgenre.
Lionsgate’s My Bloody Valentine: Special Edition DVD presents the film in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the print is clean and mostly grain-free, essentially the same print Paramount released on its 2002 vanilla disc. There are two versions of the film available for viewing on this disc: the 1981 R-rated theatrical version and the reconstructed original cut. The image quality on both cuts is similar and the only substantial differences exist in the uncut version when the lost footage appears. The scenes definitely look their age, like they’ve been in the producer’s house the past 28 years (which they have). They’re scratchy and dark and I think we all were hoping for a full high definition restoration of these scenes, but it’s still a treat to see them found and re-edited into the movie. The mono audio track from the 2002 Paramount disc is present here along with a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Both tracks are strong and do the job well providing atmosphere, breathing room for the dialogue, and a nice showcase for Paul Zaza’s score.
The special features are fine but hardly essential given the film’s cult following. Besides the lost gore footage the major new extra on the disc is the documentary “Bloodlust: My Bloody Valentine” and the “Rise of the Slasher Film” (21 minutes). If you’re like me and were expecting a comprehensive behind-the-scenes feature then you’d be half-right. “Bloodlust” starts off well enough with comments about the genesis of the film from Mihalka, producers Dunning and Link, and several of the principal cast members. But then at about the ten-minute mark it suddenly shifts into promotional mode for the new 3D remake with interviews with that film’s director and stars. That pisses me off. Look it’s obvious that the release of the remake was pretty much the sole reason for Lionsgate having any interest in putting out this new DVD of the original and I have no problem with that because their greed is the fans’ gain, plus if they wanted to insert an extended advertisement for remake into the bonus features that’s fine as well. But sticking it into the main documentary and having it take up about half its running time when more attention should have been paid to the original? That’s downright evil and it saddens me.
Next up is “Bloodlines: An Interactive Horror Film History,” which presents a breakdown of the various popular subgenres of horror and devotes a few text screens to each one. Needless to say this feature is pretty uninspiring as it refuses to get too in-depth but rather only skims the surface. There are sections devoted to the cinema of Herschell Gordon Lewis, torture porn, gialli, and post-modern slashers to name but a few. Being a big horror fan I didn’t see anything here I didn’t already know and this feature proved to be a minor distraction and not worthy of a revisit any time soon.
The ten uncut murder sequences are presented independent of the film in a submenu of its own and each clip is presented with optional video introductions featuring additional interviews with the filmmakers and cast telling stories about the creation and subsequent deletion of these scenes. Mihalka says a few words about how the assassination of John Lennon temporarily changed Hollywood’s feelings towards excessive violence (except in big-budget action movies) and how that affected the original cut of My Bloody Valentine.
So that’s it for the features. The fan-fulfilling presence of the long lost gore footage and the lack of any substantial bonus features (a better retrospective documentary and maybe an audio commentary from the filmmakers and cast would have been very nice) demonstrates Hollywood’s frustrating contradictory attitude towards under-appreciated horror films. This is very disappointing especially coming from Lionsgate, the same studio that gave us the absolutely awesome 2007 special edition DVD for The Monster Squad among others. Hopefully when they release the inevitable unrated DVD of the 3D remake they’ll show a bit more love towards the highly underrated original. And the sordid dance continues….
BAADASSSSS will return.