Nothing says Valentine’s Day like a dank, dark, coal mine and the company of a slasher killer wearing a gas mask and wielding a pick-axe. At this time of year, we like to think of candy, chocolate, candlelight, and the company of someone we love, not running terrified from a psycho killer with an axe to grind. Of course, this isn’t “Romance on Film Street” so when it comes to marking February 14, what else can we do in this Remake Redemption, but talk about My Bloody Valentine?
My Bloody Valentine, the original directed by George Mihalka, came out in 1981 and was among the first wave of slasher imitators following the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, and you can tell because it’s about a masked killer hunting people on a holiday or special occasion. Like Black Christmas, Prom Night and The Incubus, My Bloody Valentine was also part of a class of Canadian-produced horror film in the late 70s and early 80s that helped established the tone and trappings for slasher films till this day, but there were some important differences between this Mihalka film and the others.
“Nothing says Valentine’s Day like a dank, dark, coal mine and the company of a slasher killer wearing a gas mask and wielding a pick-axe.”
First, My Bloody Valentine stands out because the main characters are young adults and not teenagers. Since it is Valentine’s Day, there’s also romantic story at its heart, a complicated one that involves a love triangle where young Sarah (Lori Hallier) is torn between the steadfast Axel (Neil Affleck), and the more ambitious T.J. (Paul Kelman), who returns to town after trying to find success elsewhere only to come home and find his girl with another guy. This is not some Dawson’s Creek scenario for poor Sarah, who does still have feelings for T.J., but she’s deeply angry about the manner he left town in the first place. “Trust issues” is what you call them.
Second, the setting is blue collar mining town, which offers district character and a particular stage for the story that feels different from the suburban neighbourhoods or summer camps in other slasher movies. My Bloody Valentine has a particular flavour, and much of that comes from the old Nova Scotia mines and tunnels that much of the film was shot in. Authenticity is hard to define, but in watching My Bloody Valentine there’s never a doubt that the movie was made someplace real and not on a film set somewhere.
Because of the setting, and the fact the much of the back half of the movie, including the climax, takes place in that mine, there’s a kind of grime to My Bloody Valentine. Grime was a selling point, and in one famous story from the making of the film, the people of Sydney, Nova Scotia committed to cleaning up the mine when they found out a movie production was coming to town. They didn’t know that the dank was part of the appeal in shooting there because dank is not something you can easily recreate in an authentic way, and that posed an interesting quandary: Can you do a slick, 3-D remake of My Bloody Valentine without authentic soot?
That question was answered in 2009, and it turns out you could. Unlike the original, where you could almost see the coal dust on the finished film, there’s something rather pristine about the remake, but that’s because the filmmakers were looking to the future. You see, My Bloody Valentine was one of the pioneers of the new era of 3-D. James Cameron’s Avatar would elevate the game almost exactly one year later, but before My Bloody Valentine, 3-D was a curio being used mostly by animated films and wildlife documentaries.
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“My Bloody Valentine has a particular flavour, and much of that comes from the old Nova Scotia mines and tunnels that much of the film was shot in. “
The remake came courtesy of director Patrick Lussier and writer Todd Farmer, and you can now look back now and enjoy My Bloody Valentine as a test run for their schlocky, campy 3-D masterpiece Drive Angry. Both films offer gory and elaborate kills, over-the-top sex and nudity, and white trash characters struggling not to indulge in their worst instincts and often failing. There’s brawling, rampant suspicion of outsiders, and long held town secrets. It’s practically Hillbilly Elegy without the meth.
Lussier’s My Bloody Valentine is almost completely disinterested in social commentary, but its kind of scratching there from the outside, because this mining town is dying and our erstwhile T.J. in this remake, who just goes by Tom and is played by Supernatural’s Jensen Ackles, has come to put the final nail in the coffin by closing the mine. Unlike the original film, it feels like this town, ironically called Harmony, might fall apart if someone breathes on it wrong. You can see the stress of it on the face of Axel, the local sheriff portrayed by Kerr Smith, who looks like the most besieged small-town sheriff in movie history. You look him in the eyes, and he’s hanging on by a thin thread.
In terms of commonalities with the original film, there’s still a love triangle. Axel is married to Sarah, played by Jaime King, who manages her parent’s grocery store, but she used to be in love with Tom, who left town for supposedly greener pastures after the night miner Harry Warden went on a killing spree. Axel is the guy who stayed, and he knows it, which is why he’s cheating on Sarah with the local pretty young thing played by Megan Boone, and why he feels so threatened by Tom when he comes back to town.
With all this drama, you forget that the point of the movie is that there’s a serial killer on the loose, and apparently taking revenge on the town. Both films incorporate sin as a justification for the killing spree, albeit in different ways. In the remake, it was Tom’s mistake that caused a cave-in that killed five miners and left Harry Warden as the sole survivor. One year later Warden wakes up from a coma and goes on a killing spree that ends with him disappearing back into mine till 10 years later when he apparently comes back, but there’s more to that story that the town’s elders don’t want to cop to.
“[…] using that third dimension doesn’t overwhelm the story, and the movie basically works fine without it.“
Going back to the original though, Warden is so much more a monster. There is a cave-in, Warden does survive, but the accident is caused by supervisors eager to get to the annual Valentine’s Day dance so they ignore typical safety protocols. The implication is that Warden and his fellow miners were abandoned in the eager pursuit of lust, and in that cave-in Warden had to succumb to cannibalism in order to survive. Driven to insanity, he kills the supervisors that left him to die, and then left the townspeople with a warning: Hold the Valentine’s Day dance again and I come back to kill some more!
While there’s an element of folklore and urban legend to both versions of the Harry Warden origin story, one gets a sense that no one in the remake every truly believes that Warden was lying in wait to return. Perhaps it’s because we live in more cynical times, but not for a minute does anyone seem to entertain the idea that Warden, the killer dressed in an anonymous miner’s suit, is a supernatural force. In the original film, it’s almost surprising at the end that the Miner is not Warden, but a character we’ve previously met who seemingly has no connection to Warden.
Winking self awareness is one of the winning aspects to this remake, and so is the aforementioned 3-D, which is often used in ways you might expect with axes and bullets fired at the fourth wall, but it’s also used to add grisly depth to some of the kills, like an early scene were you look down the shovel handle to where the spade has been shoved through a victim’s open mouth. Given the gimmick, it’s almost amazing to watch Lussier use 3-D with such restraint. It enhances the movie, but using that third dimension doesn’t overwhelm the story, and the movie basically works fine without it.
With or without 3-D, the key to good camp is that you never really to draw attention to it, and all your actors have to play it straight. While Smith seems strung out constantly from the seeming stress of small-town police work, King looks like an overworked mom with a career, a child, and a mostly absent husband. Ackles as Tom looks constantly tortured by the past, his present, and his conflicted feelings about the future, or perhaps that’s just the deep dark secret he’s keeping that’s affecting his conscious mind. A killer miner is almost superfluous because these people are already being tortured by themselves and each other. Like the original film, there’s a whole world of drama going on here before the psycho killer ever walks on stage.
“Like the original film, there’s a whole world of drama going on [in the remake] before the psycho killer ever walks on stage.“
But what about humour or camp in that first My Bloody Valentine? The opening scene has seemingly no connection to the rest of the film, but it’s a memorable cold open just the same as we see two miners, but one is revealed to be a woman who elegantly strips out of her miner’s suit to reveal impeccable hair and make-up, and a white lace bra without a hint of soot. The other minor is still fully covered, gas mask included, as she touches him seductively and caresses his air hose like some bizarre Darth Vader slash fiction. She’s killed of course, but the scene and its tongue-in-cheek tone stands out against the straight-faced 90 minutes that follow, so Mihalka clearly knew how to bait the hook.
It’s interesting to note too that both these versions of My Bloody Valentine were standalones; neither produced a sequel although they both set-up for subsequent chapters with the mad miner making a getaway. Perhaps My Bloody Valentine is like some real-life Valentines that make you realize you can’t go home again. You can never replicate that time, that person, and that love, and you know you can’t even try so what is the point of trying? You see, two is company, but three is one My Bloody Valentine too many.