My Bloody Valentine (1981)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: February 12th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Most slasher movies—or at least the ones involving teens and twentysomethings—are inherently tragic, even if most of them rarely take the time to dwell on it. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre famously does so, and even insists that the gruesome fate that befalls its doomed youth to be “all the more tragic” precisely because they’re so young. It’s this specter that often haunts the genre, whether we want to confront it or not: some maniac cuts these victims down in the prime of their lives, instantly extinguishing whatever promise or potential they may have gone on to fulfill after their ill-fated trek to a relative’s grave or after taking on a position at a summer camp. But what about those souls who are doomed to the purgatory of small-town life, where the notion of hopes and dreams go to die—if they exist at all?
My Bloody Valentine is somewhat unique in this regard. Unlike so many of its contemporaries—which often sent their ill-fated youngsters off to some backwoods hell to meet their doom—George Mihalka’s effort finds its characters already trapped by the doldrums of small-town life. Valentine Bluffs might seem like a cozy Canadian corner, but it’s unmistakably a dead-end mining town. You’re already looking at whatever future these folks may have because this is likely it for them: toiling away at a thankless job and washing down the bad taste of it with a round of beers after clocking out. Maybe every now and then, a holiday (let’s say Valentine’s Day) provides an excuse to cut loose and party—assuming, of course, the old fogies in town finally get over the horrific massacre that occurred on February 14th a couple of decades ago.
While that last bit is obviously very specific to Valentine Bluffs, anyone who’s ever lived in a nothing, nowhere town like this immediately recognizes the authenticity on display throughout My Bloody Valentine. Small town life is exactly this: a sort of shared, subconscious resignation that this is it, so you might as well band together to make the most of your life. It’s simple pleasures, like decorating the town’s modest dance hall, or carousing at the bar while the old coot recounts that dumb legend about Harry Warden’s Valentine’s Day massacre. It’s hanging out in the old junkyard, banging out a harmonica duet with the guy who stole your girl when you tried to skip town and make something of yourself. Now you’re back, stuck working in your old man’s mine, simmering with resentment at your own failure and desperately trying to win the girl back. It’s nothing personal—you even kind of like the guy she’s with because that’s what it’s like to live in Valentine Bluffs, a hole-in-the-wall where everybody has to get along because it’s all you’ve got.
Granted, I’m not sure My Bloody Valentine is really about the drudgeries of small-town life in any meaningful way, but it’s not too many steps removed from the likes of Goin’ Down the Road or Mon Oncle Antoine, two similar (and also very Canadian) portraits of provincial despair. Take Harry Warden out of the equation and you’re still left with a pretty compelling drama about prodigal son T.J. (Paul Kelman) returning home and reckoning with his failure to escape. He’s stuck doing exactly what he never wanted to do, and he lost the girl to boot. His resentment is more than a red herring that might fool viewers into believing he could be the killer; it’s an essential layer of despair that adds another dimension of authenticity to the film. Between its early gore outbursts, My Bloody Valentine is basically a hang-out movie that hovers around this group of miners and their gals, and it’s an absolutely genuine tapestry of small-town life: its small triumphs, its tragedy, and just about everything in between.
Of course, Valentine Bluffs would hardly have been the draw for audiences in 1981, most of whom were just looking to enjoy another round of butchery in the burgeoning slasher movement. Mihalka delivered on this promise well enough, even if the MPAA did its best to neuter My Bloody Valentine during its infamous post-Friday the 13th rampage. In its cut form, the film certainly still has its moments, but I’ll be honest: it was never the memory of certain death scenes or gore gags that kept me returning to Valentine Bluffs over the years. Rather, it’s the town and its gang of lovable nobodies that’s held sway over the years, and Mihalka’s investment is critical in making the inevitable deaths mean something.
Even the loss of characters we only see for a brief moment, like the ill-fated Dave who winds up boiled in hot dog water, seems tragic because of the film’s lived-in quality. When even these bit characters die, there’s a genuine sense of loss among the survivors, who have likely known them for their entire lives. Don’t even get me started on what it’s like when someone like Hollis (Keith Knight)—who’s essentially that guy in town that nobody can say a bad thing about—meets a grim demise at the wrong end of a nail gun. Appropriately enough, My Bloody Valentine will break your heart.
This one just hits a little bit differently from other slashers. Yes, it boasts a killer mythology, some of the best 80s slasher effects (in its unrated form), and even one of the most memorable end credits songs of all-time; however, these are but grace notes accenting the distinct charm of My Bloody Valentine. I think it says a lot that this film became a cult favorite in spite of the MPAA cuts that neutered its gore: maybe that means it wasn’t completely the film it was meant to be, but it still retained an even more crucial essence that moved to the forefront in lieu of ridiculous splatter. You could almost assume that My Bloody Valentine was never meant to be outrageously gory in the first place because Mihalka seems to be much more invested in life than gruesome death. Somehow, that small-town setting does make it all the more tragic: here’s a ragtag little bunch that’s eked out a nice little existence, only to see it hacked up by a madman with a pickaxe. Many of them may have expected the mines to kill them, but not quite like this.
Even if all of that cut gore wasn’t truly essential to enjoying My Bloody Valentine over the years, fans were nonetheless ecstatic when the original, uncut version was restored for release over a decade ago. It wasn’t perfect by any means: not only did Lionsgate initially release it on DVD, only to double-dip by the end of the year on Blu-ray, but the excised footage was in pretty rough shape. Even if it was quite watchable, the composite cut wasn’t seamless by any means, a fact that seemed pretty understandable considering the elements (and considerable luck) at work. We were happy just to have the opportunity.
A not so happy development saw this Lionsgate release go out of print fairly quickly, though, leaving a new generation of My Bloody Valentine fans starving for a decent release. Scream Factory has come to the rescue in a big way here with one of their best collector’s editions in recent memory. They’ve rescanned both the theatrical and unrated cuts in 4K, and the latter now boasts a relatively seamless presentation. You might see a slight dip in quality if you’re looking out for the uncut bits, but my guess is that an initiated viewer will never notice. Because I stubbornly refused to upgrade to Lionsgate’s Blu-ray, this was my first time seeing MBV in HD, and it’s stunning. It’s kind of miraculous, to have a thing that shouldn’t exist in such pristine quality.
Scream Factory has also delivered an abundance of special features, something neither Lionsgate nor Paramount could be bothered to do. The former at least bothered to produce a mini-doc (that’s noticeably absent on Scream’s Blu-ray, it should be noted), but it was mostly in the service of promoting the ’09 redux. For all intents and purposes, the collection of interviews and footage on this Blu-ray represent the first real stab at providing some insight into the film’s production and legacy.
Most of this comes from a series of interviews with the cast and crew, most of whom answer a similar round of prompts involving story beats and memories about the shooting location. Mihalka is the headliner here, as his 24-minute interview recounts the process of gritting the production out on such a short timetable to meet its very specific holiday release date. He discusses story ideas (including the obviously discarded notion that TJ should be the film’s killer) and the infamous process of cutting the film on the MPAA’s fickle whims. Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier, Neil Affleck, Helene Udy, and Rob Stein also appear in separate interviews to discuss similar material; there’s obviously a lot of crossover here, and this disc makes yet another case that Scream Factory’s earlier penchant for weaving this stuff into a cohesive doc makes for a better, more efficient viewing. An interview with effects man Tom Burman at least breaks up the monotony with some fresh perspective, but, again, you could easily see all this stuff cobbled together into one feature.
The disc also includes a side-by-side comparison of the theatrical and uncut gore scenes, a 45-minute Q&A reunion with the cast and crew at Tampa’s Bay of Blood convention, plus Thomas Kovacs giving a live performance of “The Ballad of Harry Warden” at the same venue. The usual assortment of promo material is here too, along with a reversible cover that restores the film’s poster art for home video release for the first time since the VHS days. It’s truly a remarkable edition that’s been long-overdue. Once again, Scream Factory’s new collaboration with Paramount is already paying huge dividends for fans who have been waiting for such a monumental title get the release it deserves. With the exception of the scattered, somewhat redundant nature of some of the interviews, it’s hard to find much wrong with this release, and even that’s admittedly a nitpick.
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