A memorable if cliched classic
Since this is the month of love I would be remiss to avoid one of the horror genre’s hidden gems based around the sickeningly sweet holiday. In 1981, amidst the wave of holiday-themed slashers inspired by the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, audiences were treated to another slice of holiday hell.
Set in the stark but endearing small town of Valentine Bluffs, My Bloody Valentine sees a group of twenty-somethings hunted by a mysterious killer determined – like most people – to banish any mention or celebration of the town’s namesake, by any means possible. When people start to die, it is only too late that the group of love-hungry partygoers realise they are about to experience a Valentine’s day never to be forgotten.
My Bloody Valentine is, at a first glance, disposable. Doomed to fade into obscurity and compete in an already deluged genre for the audience’s attention, and yet, I find myself revisiting the film at least twice on year on both Halloween and Valentine’s Day. The question I have to ask myself is, why? Why does this movie rank in my mind among horror icons of years past?
First of all, praise has to be given to the design of the costume and props. No machetes or kitchen knives here, only a large, two-handed pickaxe. The brutality felt with each kill is palpable, there is no stabbing, deadly yet minimal, only the powerful thrust or swing of the pickaxe into our unexpecting victims. There are anger and malice behind each death, borne from something deeper than just a desire to kill. With that being said, My Bloody Valentine is not afraid to get creative with its kills. The death of Mable Osborne – left to boil in one of her laundrette’s washing machines – is a particular highlight.
In addition, the killer’s costume in this film is downright terrifying. Taken from the local mining company, the slasher in My Bloody Valentine wears a mining coverall and gasmask. Most of the film’s more tense scenes are built upon the continuous heavy breathing coming from behind that mask; it creates an uncomfortable sense of intimacy. It feels as if the killer is in the room with you, right behind you in fact. Completing the look and staying power of our villain are his eyes. Often obscured by the wide black holes of the gas mask, the lack of humanity found within the gaping emptiness of them is staggering and sets him apart nicely from other slasher villains. Freddy, Michael and Jason all looked their victims in the eyes. Here there is no such luxury, our characters are denied the chance to look their killer in the eye and see into his soul.
While the villain is memorable and intimidating, the other characters are sadly less so. They do not devolve into the stereotypes of today (there is no obliquely smart one, slutty one or idiot jock) but they remain cardboard cutouts, with little to do other than stand there and wait to be axed. The only exception to this rule is with Harry Warden, a miner stranded underground and forced to feed on his crewmates to fend off starvation, but he is not enough to flesh out the cast of bodies-in-waiting. Infuriating too is the love triangle between TJ, Axel and Sarah (to further prove my point, I had to Google their names) as it makes no impact whatsoever on the narrative. When Axel is revealed to be the killer, his motivation is in no way tied to TJ’s feelings for Sarah and their character arcs, what little there is, are largely unaffected by the events of the film.
With that being said, Axel’s motivation is interesting and provides a welcome diversion from the traditional slahser format. His motives are clearly set out and easy to understand, although the flashback revealing the finer details feels a tad shoehorned in, his desire to banish any mention of Valentine’s Day from the Bluffs is understandable. His father died, along with others, as a consequence of the town’s obsession with the holiday. The clearly defined revenge motive is unoriginal, but it’s better than the blind, sadistic desire for carnage of Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees.
The aforementioned Valentine Bluffs and Harry Warden do make for an interesting combination. The victim of negligence who is forced to live underground for six weeks while trapped in the mine, Harry Warden kills those responsible for his trauma and is sent to an institution as a consequence. In the meantime, his story grows into legend for the residents of the town and as the body count grows its seems more and more a mark of his return. It is with this fact that the story manages to create an interesting mystery as to who is truly committing the crimes until Axel is finally revealed as the true killer.
The ending of the film is memorable too, with the dark claustrophobia of the mines put front and centre as our characters fight to escape the killer. Axel’s escape, wounded but not dead, deeper into the mine, leaves an unsavoury taste long after the credits have rolled, with his maniacle laugh echoing as the credits roll.
So there you have it. While the characters are cookie-cutter and largely forgettable, the film provides a memorable entry into the pantheon of horror slasher villains .By adding a plot of revenge and mystery regarding the identity of the killer and eschewing the tired trope of giving audiences an unrelatable monster whose motivations remain unknown the film manages to chisel out its place in the genre. With fantastic costume design and a memorable villain, My Bloody Valentine has stayed with me for many years and will continue to do so for many more.