Reassessing a Classic: MBV Then & Now

My Bloody Valentine was released on February 13, 1981, just as the slasher sub-genre was gaining substantial momentum. Halloween had started the trend proper, and Friday the 13th had solidified it as a moneymaker. Every studio wanted a slasher flick on its release schedule, and special interest groups were beginning to protest them everywhere.

I was 16-years-old when MBV was released, and I was (am) a die-hard horror movie fan. I had already mastered the art of getting into R-rated movies, and I was taking advantage of it every time a new horror flick hit one of our two 2-screen cinemas. You name it, and if it was horror and in town, I’d see it. But for some reason, I didn’t go to MBV. True, it only played at my local theatre for a week (these were the days before multi-screen, multi-month engagements), and I admit that the original poster and ad art did nothing for me. But lots of slasher flicks had uninspiring promos and only played for seven days, and I’d seen them! Word of mouth was decent – A good friend saw it, and she told me she’d liked it, specifying that the ending was creepy. I’d seen pics from MBV in Fangoria, and they looked gruesomely terrific, despite the fact that word started to get around that the MPAA had done some serious damage to the movie in order to allow Paramount to release it with an R rating. Whatever the cause, I must have been feverish with over-slasherization or something; too much of a good thing. By 1981, it was getting hard to tell one slasher flick from another.

To make amends, I rented MBV (along with a cumbersome VHS player – not many people owned them in those days) the very second I found it at the video store. Hoping against hope that this would be the slasher flick that would scare the hell out of me, I popped the tape into the player, pushed pay, and… meh… As a Canadian, MBV was just too Canadian for me – the setting (I was born in the province where MBV was shot), the accents, the “smallness” of it all. And beyond its Canuck quirkiness, it was a pretty bloodless affair, even failing to deliver the “magician’s trick” of the gore effect. I dismissed it entirely for a loooong time.

In the years following its original release, MBV began to gain a positive reputation in the genre press. Stories started circulating about the hunt for the censored footage (considered lost) and the release of an uncut version, something of a Holy Grail for slasher fans. In the meantime, Paramount released a bare bones DVD edition, and on a nostalgia-charged whim, I bought it. My response as the end credits rolled was entirely different this time. The “smallness” really worked – after all, it takes place in and around a mine, and in the smallest of small towns. The actors all deliver, and their characters are believable; you can see these people’s lives in Valentine’s Bluff. “Harry Warden” is iconic and scary, and there are several creepy and suspenseful scenes in its speedy running time. As for it’s “Canadian-ness”, well, that was my own baggage to be discarded. Consider it dealt with. After 20 years, I’m converted – a believer, testifying in the church of MBV!

2003. I’m working in the production office of a kid’s TV movie called Mrs. Ashboro’s Cat, one of the few industry things to be shot in the province where I live. It’s directed by Don (American Nightmare) McBrearty, and it stars an as-yet-undiscovered Ellen Page, Michael (Girls on the Road, Twin Peaks) Ontkean, Shirley (TV’s Ghost Story, The Outer Limits & Tales of the Unexpected), and Lori Hallier. Hallier is pretty, very nice, a terrific actor. She starts dating a friend of mine, and all the time I keep thinking, “Gee, she looks familiar”. The shoot ends (as does the relationship between Hallier and my pal), and the film is eventually released. THEN realization hits – Hallier is the star of MBV! I return to my DVD, and sure enough, it’s her. Why didn’t I get her to autograph it?! D-U-M-B!

A few years later, the news comes that a remake of MBV is in the works. Thanks to the fact that Hollywood is out of ideas and is pilfering movies to “reimagine” (ugh), Lionsgate announces that the “lost” footage from the original has been found, and they will be unleashing an uncut DVD of the 1981 version to coincide with the release of their remake. All of a sudden, this kitty has claws! The FX work by Tom Burman, Ken Diaz and Tom Hoerber is terrific, ferocious, and stands up today. It adds extra impact and in some cases pathos to the fate of the film’s characters (i.e. the discovery of Mabel’s body) . This is MBV as it was intended to be seen. But special effects alone don’t completely account for an entirely changed perception of a movie almost 30 years later (ouch!).

On February 12, 1981, Tom Buckley reviewed the film in The New York Times. He wrote: “My Bloody Valentine probably won’t make you shiver with fright, but it’s almost certain to make you squirm, first with irritation and then with revulsion.

“Just when it seemed that quickie horror movies had touched bottom, this Canadian production, which opened yesterday at Loews State I and other theaters, drops the level of shoddy exploitation another 2,000 feet or so. The measurement is quite literal, because most of it takes places in a mine.”

Buckley’s comments are typical of the notices that slasher films received upon their release back in the 80’s. In some cases (F13) they were beyond criticism, but generally they were dismissed as trash that was turning moviegoers into psychopaths. Over time, slasher films from the Golden Era have become more acceptable, if not exactly welcomed with open arms (but we don’t want total acceptance anyway, do we?). Today, they are seen as something similar to a thrill ride rather than an operational manual for serial killers-in-training. And as their reputation improves in the mainstream, their merits are more widely recognized. Elements that MBV was once criticized for can now seen as its pluses: setting, villain, musical score, direction, acting, scriptwriting. MBV plays fair by the rules and conventions of the slasher genre while improving on and expanding them in some cases.

When taking a contemporary look of the censored version of MB for Retro Slashers, Lance Vaughan wrote: “You could not find a better example of an early eighties slasher film if you tried. MBV follows the previous year’s Friday The 13th’s format closely. In fact, the dance actually takes place on Saturday the 14th! But it’s savvy enough to add its own spin to the proceedings. The local boogey man legend, the doom saying old timers, and the post coital murders are all present but so is a rather original setting (the mines), a compelling love triangle and a somewhat earnest take on a working class dead end town. Harry Warden himself is an inspired creation, the flashback scenes of his figure roaming about in the fog clad in mining gear complete with head lantern and pick axe, create an image that is a perfect marriage of classic and modern horror.”

He continues: “If we’ve learned anything from eighties slasher movies, It’s that nothing stays buried forever. In the meantime, it speaks volumes that even a toothless edit of this film remains a slasher classic. We can only pray that someday soon Paramount wises up to the sleeping giant in their midst.”

Later, Christain Sellers noted for Retro Slashers: “Whereas most slashers revolve around a group of high school teenagers, My Bloody Valentine thankfully took a different approach by having their protagonists as a group of twenty and thirty-somethings, who worked such an unglamorous job. The love triangle between T.G., Sarah and Axel may be pure soap opera but it adds a depth to the movie not found in many slashers. The isolated setting is perfect, with the mines extremely claustrophobic (the production had shot on location at the Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia), almost becoming a character in its own right. The image of the killer is also an inspired move, with the creepy heavy breathing and deadly weapon making him both sinister and iconic. Without the severe MPAA cuts, there was enough gore to satisfy the bloodthirsty fans, but even without them the film offers enough tension to remain unsettling.”

Out of the current wave of Golden Age slasher re-evaluation, My Bloody Valentine stands at the top of the bloody pile with a few other select titles. Valentine is a unique, thrilling, and yes, fun horror flick from the sub-genere’s heyday. Thank you to director George Mihalka, his cast, crew and production team for creating a genuine slasher classic. For slasher fans, Valentine’s Day will always be the day Harry Warden, not cupid, come to town.

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5 Responses to Reassessing a Classic: MBV Then & Now

  1. Awesome. That’s so funny about you and Lori… Small world.

    I agree that it’s amazing for MBV (and any old slasher when you think about it) when they age so well. It’s a testament to the filmmakers and also to certain slasher staples that just work when someone gives them a little heart (literally!)…

  2. glenn says:

    The mainstream critics weren’t the only ones having a pop at slashers. Serious horror types hated them too.
    Kim Newman was pretty much blaming them for the end of civilisation until well into the 1990s!
    MBV is a great one.

  3. Ross Horsley says:

    Wow, what a thoughtful and fully-researched article. Thanks for the interesting read.

  4. Adam says:

    Great read, MBV is one of my all time favorites. super amazing. perfect example of a Slasher film

  5. Unk L says:

    I’ll never get enough of this movie. I can’t believe now that there was a time when the uncut version just seemed like a crazy dream that would not come true. I’ll always be grateful to all those involved with making that happen. Great article, looking forward to reading more on MBV this week!

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