My Bloody Valentine (1981)

My Bloody Valentine begins with a remarkable fetishist image: two people in mining gear make their way through a subterranean labyrinth, before one of them begins to unzip their suit, revealing a nubile female form clad only in underwear. She tries to coax her partner into sex, only for the frustrated man to release a bellow of rage and shove her back onto the head of a pick-axe.

It’s an inventive scene for managing to set context, place T&A and violence into the opening frames, and also for aiming right at the heart of the slasher genre’s usually more voyeuristic approach to violence as a substitute for sexual release. Instantly, the killer is defined not as an observer and executioner of transgressive youths, but by his own impotent attempt to annihilate desire, which soon reaches its psychotic apogee as the year’s most romantic day comes around.

Valentine stands head and shoulders clear of the joyless plethora of ‘80s slasher films almost entirely because of the muscular direction of George Mihalka, maintaining a cracking pace and a vivid atmosphere in its remote, regional, thoroughly blue-collar milieu, in the mining town of Valentine Bluffs.

Mihalka paints in gritty tones the dead skyline, decayed infrastructure, and rough-and-tumble social habits of young, energetic, but bored miners and their girlfriends. Just as the romance-laden name of the town, spelt out in candy-coloured letters on a sign at the outskirts, conflicts with the dour grey sky, so to do the warm hues of the bar the young workers inhabit, and the decorations they plaster in the Union Hall, contradict the ramshackle state of the town and the wind-blasted surrounds. It’s a visually acute presentation of a place where fun, love, and happiness have a bare chance of surviving in an otherwise gnawing environment.

Twenty years after a dreadful mine accident saw a lone survivor driven to cannibalism to survive, and his slaughter the following year of the negligent officials responsible, the town’s traditional Valentine’s Day Dance is finally being allowed to resume, the younger generation ignore the warnings and prove the old adage that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. Though an historical underpinning to present-day violence was a constant motif of the slasher film, Valentine gains a force through that idea that eluded the likes of Friday the 13th.

Quentin Tarantino cited Valentine as his favourite slasher film and an influence on Death Proof, in terms of its relatively substantial levels of characterisation and detail of milieu. The rugged, elemental setting puts the film at odds with the terror-in-plastic-suburbia tilt of the sub-genre. At the centre is a love triangle between JR (Paul Kelman, who looks remarkably like a young Ian McShane), son of the town’s mayor and owner of the mine; Axel (Neil Affleck), his old buddy, and Susan (Lori Hallier). JR left Susan behind in his calamitous attempt to make it on “the East Coast”, and now he’s come crawling back, sullen and angered by the sight of his girl and friend together.

Sequences like when JR and Axel try to relate in sharing a beer and playing harmonica , or when JR desperately appeals to Susan whilst walking the grey seaside, have a kind of casual sense of life and humanity usually missing from such fare. Much as JR’s afraid of a life going in endless circles but now has resigned himself to it, so the narrative is defined by a deadly arc of psychological cause and effect where the half-forgotten horrors of the past will return.

The film is weighed down by mechanical efforts to touch all the bases of the mini-genre (the compulsory joker-pest; the sheriff’s breathless attempts to locate records of the imprisoned madman). The first half is badly uneven with poor dialogue, whilst awkwardly contriving a method for getting a decent number of victims out to the mine, chosen setting for the stalk-and-chop. Mihalka has little interest in the inevitable sequences of the killer hunting and butchering necking couples and assorted town fogies (an impression increased by the relative lack of gore, much of which was apparently edited before release), which, ironically, both unbalances the generic arc and gives the film greater dramatic impetus: where the endless teases of most Halloween-influenced films got real tedious real quick, Mihalka’s taunt-the-prey sequences are over quickly, whilst gearing up for the real action.

Once it gets there, Valentine really takes off, as its young heroes flee for their lives in the guts of the mine, stalked by the killer. The film turns into a superbly handled fight-and-flight melodrama, as JR and killer, who proves to be Axel, traumatised by the murder of his father by the original madman, do battle in a ferociously physical fashion. The last image is appropriately haunting, as Axel, injured and raving mad, retreats into the darkest corners of the mine, raving about his return, promising that once again, the past will surge back to haunt them all.

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