Two distant figures walk down a dimly lit mine shaft. They start out as dark silhouettes with only a pinpoint of light shining from their heads. Slow drips of water and quiet walking sounds can be heard. As the figures amble closer, the audience can begin to make out their clothing — black jumpsuits, gas masks, and lighted helmets. The sound of breathing and the film’s theme becomes more prominent as the figures find a stopping place. One begins to remove their jumpsuit revealing a womanly figure in only a bra. She removes her mask and tosses back her blonde hair. The camera pans over her body, ending on her hands as her elegant fingers caress the tube attached to the still-dressed figure’s gas mask. As she strokes the tube sensuously the other figure shoves her body against a pickaxe that protrudes from the wall. The pickaxe pierces her body as she screams and blood pours from her wound. The camera zooms into her screaming mouth until the screen is black. With her screams still heard, the title fades in — My Bloody Valentine.
This 1981 slasher classic’s opening scene immediately hits its audience with all the best — or worst, depending on who you are — of the controversial subgenre’s stereotypes. A trashy sexual scene that devolves into violence, often at the expense of a woman — all ripe with phallic imagery of course — has become a hallmark of slasher films. It is no surprise that upon its release film critic, and notorious slasher hater, Gene Siskel dismissed My Bloody Valentine as “another entry in that most depressing of film genres, the mad-slasher-with-a-knife,” in his chicago tribune review. However, as the audience steps into the gaily decorated mining town of Valentine Bluffs, full of folksy Canadians and rhyming notes, it becomes clear that My Bloody Valentine has more charm than many critics want to admit.
While slashers can be found throughout the decades, the subgenre’s popularity exploded in the1980s following the well received release of Halloween in 1978. The success of slasher films connected to specific days, such as Black Christmas, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, lead the producers of a film originally titled The Secret to rename the project My Bloody Valentine. The film is built from the same bones as many other entries in the subgenre. A small town with a traumatic past, and whispers between authority figures about a fear the town holds, builds the legs of this slasher’s skeleton. The reveal of a town legend — in this case a bartender named Happy (Jack Van Evera) divulges the legend of Harry Warden (Peter Cowper), a minor turned crazed killer after a Valentine’s Day mining accident 20 years ago — creates the ribcage. A group of young men and women creates one arm. The town’s authority figure being unable to locate the previously locked up legend creates the other. The young people’s decision to ignore the warnings of elder community members, like the young characters of My Bloody Valentine do when they decide to throw a Valentine’s party, constructs the neck. Finally, a large, imposing killer in a mask is the skull that tops everything off. Even in the early days of slasher popularity this skeletal structure quickly became a familiar site for horror audiences. While the skeleton of My Bloody Valentine may seem bare and unremarkable, a possible twin to many other films, it is what lays on top of the film’s structure that makes it special. The film’s ability to have a complex web of common anxieties lurking just beneath the over-the-top violence of the plot creates a muscular system that gives strength to the terror of the film, while it’s quirks build a unique flesh, making My Bloody Valentine as individual to the genre as one audience member is to another.
Small towns are a common setting in slasher films. They are meant to be peaceful and comforting. The idealistic nature of small town life lulls the audience into a sense of security that is not found in a city setting. What stands apart in My Bloody Valentine, however, is a lack of houses in the film. Most small town horror films include shots of suburban streets lined with cute houses on neat lawns. The horror in these films often happens after the characters have separated from the shared spaces of the town to be isolated in their own dwellings. My Bloody Valentine replaces a focus on these individualistic structures with town gathering places such as the mine, a town meeting hall, the town laundromat and town bar. The violence that occurs in this film invades not just the unassuming nature of a small town environment, but also the reassuring safety of being in a community. It further reinforces a focus on community by spending time on the attributes of Valentine Bluffs. It is a town where the mayor has a close relationship with all the citizens. It is a town where people use tinfoil to cook food on their car engines. These characterizing scenes are short, but important because it helps the audience to feel like they know the town.
My Bloody Valentine’s focus on the mine as both a catalyst and setting for it’s horror is an integral part of its ability to introduce eerie imagery and mundane fears into the plot naturally. When two characters break away from the Valentine’s Day party for a quick hookup, they end up in a room where minor uniforms hang from the ceiling like the bodies of hundreds of minors watching over them. Mines have an innate connection to catastrophe. It is an underground maze of tunnels, making it both claustrophobic and disorienting. Humans are not made to be underground. Cave-ins, gas leaks, and darkness humans cannot adapt to are all inherently threatening even without the presence of a killer on the loose. All light in the mine depends on man-made light fixtures. In one scene, as the killer stalks his victims he breaks the light bulbs on the wall, turning himself into a symbol of the unnatural darkness that threatens to swallow everyone else in the mine. It also allows the creepy minor uniform the killer wears to be an organic part of the plot. The gas mask and headlight helmet lends to the terror of the film in several unique ways. In scenes where the audience sees through the killer’s point of view, such as when he walks into the laundromat to kill Mabel (Patricia Hamilton), the abnormal sound of someone breathing through a gas mask is heard. This altered breathing conjures a feeling of suffocation. The light from the killer’s helmet obstructs his victim’s vision. As anyone with glasses can attest to, being unable to see properly creates a vulnerability that makes any situation ten times scarier. Furthermore, the headlight creates a cinematic element where a literal spotlight is created to focus the audience on the terror splashed across characters’ faces.
The film’s focus on Valentine’s Day could easily be dismissed as a silly, cash-grab attempt to follow a popular trend, but it ends up introducing some wonderful touches to the film. Horror can often be most effective when combined with the unexpected themes. A holiday about love, being turned into a violent gore-fest is both silly and deeply unsettling. Would the audience care as much about Mabel’s death if we didn’t see her Valentine’s Day gift to the sheriff? We see the characters showing the very sensitive and relatable emotion of love, and it makes the impact of their deaths greater. The color palette of Valentine’s Day is a friendly, cheerful sight. The red, white, and pink decorations that cover the town are sweet and whimsical. However, this friendly color palette creeps into the horror later in the film. The vision-obscuring light that comes from the killer’s helmet is white and the lens flares it creates when directed towards the camera generates a beautiful red cast across the scene. The Valentine’s Day theme also establishes a reason to introduce rhyming notes from the killer. These notes are the shiniest gem of My Bloody Valentine. They add an element of whimsy to the film that almost any horror lover can appreciate. However, they also introduce another level to the underlying creepiness the whole film has. Just like there are preconceived anxieties tied to the mine, sinister love notes can elicit social fears. They evoke thoughts of notes from love-sick stalkers and scorned ex-lovers who can’t take a hint. These whispers of real-life horrors, more common than pickaxe wielding murderers, add a layer of unease for people who are familiar with them.
For many people the quality of a slasher film lies in the quality of its kills. Inventive kills can be what makes or breaks a slasher film’s ability to be fun instead of boring. If My Bloody Valentine was a simple knife-fest with repeating kills similar to past slasher films, it would be a snooze-fest even with it’s interesting settings. However, the kills in My Bloody Valentine are varied and uncommon. Mabel is found burnt in a dyer, her eyes turned to a milky white. Dave’s (Carl Marotte) face is pushed into a pot of boiling hotdog water, which both burns and drowns him. Sylvia (Helene Udy) is impaled on a water spout, and is found with water pouring from her mouth. Happy is stabbed through the face with a pickaxe causing one eye to come out of its socket. One of the reasons these deaths are memorable is because they all affect the face, which is one of our most vulnerable areas. The death of Dave is made particularly unforgettable because characters later eat hotdogs out of the water he was murdered in, harkening back to another common anxiety of food tampering.
My Bloody Valentine manages to be a quintessential example of the 1980s’ slasher explosion while maintaining a special charm, with a twist on popular slasher settings and peculiar kills. Now is the perfect time for horror lovers to revisit it and recognize its value.