At a time when no holiday was safe from the slasher genre, one came out that stands apart...splatter with a heart. Literally.
Produced by Happy Birthday to Me gurus John Dunning and André Link...and masterfully directed by George Mihalka, My Bloody Valentine musters all the ingredients of a subgenre classic: an attractive cast, a decent body count, creative kills, nasty special effects (thanks to FX vet Tom Burman)...and best of all, a truly scary killer.
Special mention should be made as well of the exceptional atmosphere, both of the earnest small town (filmed in Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia) and in the mine where some of the action takes place.
Unfortunately, like a number of other films released during the same period, Valentine didn't fare well with the censors. After encouraging Valentine to revel in its gory bliss, distributor Paramount then lost the strength of its convictions and cut a good deal of the bloody bits prior to a February 1981 release. Nevertheless, this little Canadian terror delivers all the right chills.
In the town of Valentine Bluffs (tagline: 'The Little Town with the Big Heart'), a man and a woman are together in a coal mine. The woman takes off the miner garb she's wearing and caresses the guy, who's still wearing his work mask. The man takes notice of a heart tattooed above her breast. Suddenly, he grabs her and impales her on his pickax...killing her.
The mine is where many of the men in town work. Everyone is excited because the community is holding it's first Valentine's Day dance in twenty years. Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) is thrilled as well.
But he tells Mabel (Patricia Hamilton), the organizer, that they should forget it's the first one in two decades. He says they should "put all that other business to rest." Knowing that some people are nervous about the dance, Howard (Alf Humphreys), the town joker, plays a prank on them by pretending to be injured.
The mayor is not amused. He gets into a police car with Chief Jake Newby (Don Francks) and as they're driving, he opens a box of chocolates that he's received.
Inside is a note which reads:
From the heart comes a warning
Filled with bloody good cheer
Remember what happened
As the 14th draws near.
He also finds a human heart in the box. They drive back to the town to investigate and make sure it isn't a practical joke. The medical examiner tells them that the heart is real and it belonged to a girl in her early thirties.
The young people are hanging out at the local bar called The Cage. Happy the bartender (Jack Van Evera) warns them that this is a dangerous time and the town is cursed. He tells the story about the last dance twenty years ago. Everyone was at the celebration...except seven miners who were working underground.
Two supervisors had already finished their work...and anxious to go the party, they left before the other five were safely out. They also failed to check the methane gas levels. Because of this oversight, a lantern that one of the five men was holding caused a huge explosion.
The miners were buried alive as the two men responsible partied. For six weeks, rescuers tried to find survivors but they could only reach one: Harry Warden. They found him eating the severed arm of one of his co-workers. Harry went insane after the accident and spent the next year in a mental hospital.
After he was released, he killed the two supervisors with a pickax and cut out their hearts. He then stuffed the organs into candy boxes and left them at that year's Valentine's dance with a warning that the town should never again hold a party on the 14th of February.
The story goes that every year on that day, he comes back to town to kill anyone who does not heed his threat. The bar patrons laugh at the tale.
Meanwhile, T.J. (Paul Kelman) is jealous because his ex-girlfriend Sarah (Lori Hallier) is now seeing Axel (Neil Affleck). The two men try to discuss the situation but Axel refuses to give her up.
That night, while Mabel is alone in the laundromat she owns, the killer strikes. He plunges his pickax into her chest. The next day, Chief Newby calls the sanitarium where Harry Warden was committed...but there's no record of his stay.
When the chief goes to see Mabel to tell her about his concerns, her charred body falls out of one of the dryers. In a cavity wound in her chest is a heart-shaped card with a warning:
It happened once
It happened twice
Cancel the dance
Or it'll happen thrice.
Chief Newby tells the mayor that the townspeople should be informed that the old woman died of a heart attack! Mayor Hanniger cancels the dance with the excuse given that they should do it out of respect for Mabel's untimely death.
Axel is now catching on to the fact that T.J. is trying to win Sarah back...and he is becoming increasingly agitated. T.J. takes Sarah to a romantic spot they used to frequent and they rekindle their affection for each other.
Back at the bar, everyone is upset because of the cancellation of the dance. But T.J. comes up with a plan to have the party in the mine.
Happy decides to play a prank. He sets up a Harry Warden dummy in a shack above the mine, complete with a pickax.
The gag is tested a couple of times. But during the final test, the real killer is in the shack. The bartender is struck in his chest and dragged away.
Saturday the 14th arrives. Valentine's Day. The party is underway in the recreation room above the mine. One of the revelers, Dave (Carl Marotte), goes into the kitchen.
As he's looking into a huge pot of boiling hot dogs, Dave is overtaken by the psycho miner...who comes up from behind and forces the poor guy's head into the scalding, flesh-peeling water.
The devilish killer then puts the victim's heart into the pot. For safe keeping, Dave's body is stuffed into the refrigerator.
The soap opera angle continues as Axel and T.J. get into a fight over Sarah, ending with Axel storming off.
John (Rob Stein) and Sylvia (Helene Udy) go off into another area to have sex. John leaves Sylvia at one point to get a beer and she becomes concerned when he doesn't return right away.
While alone, the killer terrifies Sylvia by dropping all the uniforms that are hung above. He appears and picks her up and impales her on a shower head. John finds her body when he returns and flips out.
Meanwhile, some of the girls want to go inside the mine...which they've never been to. Patty (Cynthia Dale) convinces her boyfriend Hollis (Keith Knight) to take them down. T.J. tries talk them out of it because women aren't allowed. But a small group goes anyway, joined by Sarah.
They take a couple of six packs and get into the coal cart that takes them deep underground.
They're blissfully unaware that bodies have been discovered at the party above. Believing that Harry Warden is back, T.J. and Axel put aside their differences and go into the mine to warn them.
At the station house, the chief receives a bloody human heart, with a note telling him:
You didn't stop the party!He arrives at the party as people are running outside. One of the frightened women tells him that Harry Warden is on a killing spree and is headed into the mine, where a few revelers are in danger.
Mike (Tom Kovacs) and Harriet (Terry Waterland) are off together in an isolated area of the mine. They're slain (off camera) and Hollis finds the bodies. Before he can inform the others, he's approached by the psycho. Blinded by the stranger's searchlight...he's shot in the head with a screw gun.
Hollis struggles to make it to the rest of the group and drops dead in front of Sarah, Patty and Howard. The three see the killer in the distance and they frantically try to figure a way out. Howard runs off by himself and leaves the two women behind.
Axel and T.J. find them and try to escape...but the control panel for the coal cart is busted. As the four attempt to climb out using a ladder, Howard's body falls from above. Attached to a rope, his head is decapitated clean from his body. Believing that Harry Warden is at the top of the ladder, Sarah, Patty, Axel and T.J. climb back down.
While trying to search for another exit, Axel apparently falls into some water below them. T.J. separates from the girls and Patty is killed with the pickax to her chest.
Sarah finds T.J. just as the police appear above the mine. T.J. rigs the control panel to work and the coal cart starts rolling again. But someone is on their tail.
They jump off with "Harry Warden" in pursuit. During a struggle, T.J. is able to pull off the psycho miner's mask and finds out that it has been Axel all along.
In a flashback, we see that Axel's father was one of the supervisors murdered by Harry. At the time, young Axel was hiding under a bed and saw the whole thing happen.
Back to the present. T.J. pushes Axel into some rubble, trapping him underneath. Finally, the police have made it down. But suddenly someone announces that Axel is still alive underneath the rocks! Before they can all feel secure, it's noticed that Axel (now missing an arm due to the cave in) has escaped.
Through the rubble and away in the distance, Axel limps away. As everyone looks on in horror, he yells:
Harry, I'm coming!
This whole fucking town is going to die!
We're coming back, you bastards!
Sarah, be my bloody valentine...
My Bloody Valentine is everything a good horror film should be. The direction by George Mihalka is confident and first-rate. He mines (excuse the pun) the best from a solid, believable cast and the somewhat dreary yet charming smalltown location.
A creepy score by the always reliable Paul Zaza, along with his effective folksy end tune The Ballad of Harry Warden, adds immeasurably to the mood of fear and desperation.
A surefire slasher gem.