In 1981, we were up to our eyeballs in slasher films. John Carpenter’s Halloween had kicked things off three years prior, Friday the 13th had continued the box office tidal wave the year before, and both studios and low-budget filmmakers were scrambling to become the next horror success story. Once the formula was established, it was easy to replicate, resulting in a slew of films that, while fun, are somewhat forgettable. But one slasher that stands apart from the pack (and should definitely not be forgotten) is George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine.
Twenty years ago in the small mining town of Valentine’s Bluffs, a horrible mining accident took place during the annual Valentine’s Day dance. Several miners perished, but one survived. By the time they pulled Harry Warden out of the wreckage, he was completely insane and was remanded to a mental health facility for treatment.
The town tried to move on, but one year later, Harry escaped from the hospital. He hunted down the supervisors who had sent his team down into the mine that day, despite the known danger. He slaughtered them all, leaving their hearts in red Valentine’s Day candy boxes. Harry was eventually found and taken back to the institution, and the town was finally able to heal.
By 1981, the massacre is little more than a local legend shared by the town drunk. Sure, the older residents remember, but they prefer to do so quietly and let the past be the past. As our story opens, Valentine’s Bluffs is getting ready to hold their first Valentine’s Day dance in 20 years. The town is decorated top to bottom with streamers and paper hearts and everyone is in a festive mood. But the ghosts of angry tragedies rarely stay in their graves, and once again, the small town is stalked by a man in a miner’s suit. In the days leading up to the big dance, people are found murdered, their hearts placed in candy boxes along with notes demanding the cancellation of the party.
The sheriff and mayor quickly agree that calling off the dance is in the town’s best interest. They don’t know how Harry Warden managed to wind up in town again, but they refuse to risk another Valentine’s Day Massacre. The younger generation, for whom the danger seems to be just a cautionary tale, do what any group of 20-somethings would do: they throw their own damn party in the break room at the mine! Naturally, Harry is not pleased, and the mine once again becomes a focal point for carnage.
One of the things that has always made My Bloody Valentine stand out for me among other ’80s slashers is just how realized the town itself feels. Valentine’s Bluffs is a character in this film as much as Axel, TJ, or Sarah are. It has the feel of a real community, one that has seen its residents grow and age as it has aged (but not really changed) right alongside them.
When you watch the film, the people of the town feel as though they have known each other and lived together for years. They’re not actors; they’re longtime friends and family. It gives the film an authenticity that you don’t always see in slashers from this era. From the tension between TJ and Axel to the smiles shared by Mabel and Chief Newby, there are a lot of small moments that are more in service to the feel of this setting than they are to the plot, and the film really benefits from their inclusion.
The other aspect that makes My Bloody Valentine stand out is the nature of its backstory. It’s not uncommon for the plot in slasher films to be built on a dark story of the past. Jason’s drowning, Freddy’s vigilante-style murder, setting Cropsey on fire—there’s often a story behind the story. But the story of Harry Warden feels so much more fleshed out than its counterparts. Harry Warden was trapped in the mine and barely rescued, and then went on a killing rampage the following year. Even though My Bloody Valentine is a full and complete story on its own, it almost feels as though it could be a sequel to an unmade film that focused on the crazy miner who escaped the asylum and came for revenge 20 years ago. Harry Warden’s story could fully occupy the space of an entire movie, but here, it serves as a very rich and convincing backstory to the events that we actually do see on screen.
In the decades since its release, My Bloody Valentine continues to have an impact and a solid place in the slasher cycle. Sure, some of this comes from its viscous kills (many of which were restored to bloody perfection with recent Blu-ray releases), but a lot of it comes from the fact that this is also a solid movie that connects with its audience. There are a lot of elements in this film that enrich the story and help to bring it to life in a way that has really made it last.
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