In 1971, the Canadian Film Development Corporation received $10 million to aid in creating a feature film industry in Canada that would garner recognition internationally. In addition, in 1974, new tax shelter laws increased the Capitol Cost Allowance for money used in the production of movies from 30% to 100%. This resulted in an impressive output of product as all kinds of filmmakers capitalized on this opportunity. It is estimated that from the early 1970s through the 1980s, 345 films were made in Canada.
Horror movies were among some of the most popular ones to come out of this boom, specifically the slasher subgenre with Bob Clark’s landmark effort Black Christmas (1974). This led to many others, most notably Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980), and My Bloody Valentine (1981). The latter was particularly memorable for being set during Valentine’s Day and having several minutes of footage featuring gore and violence cut by the MPAA to avoid an X rating.
The movie gets right to it as two miners go off on their own deep within the mine. One – a woman – partially undresses and seduces the other who keeps his gear on. It’s a slow seduction scene that is heavily eroticized until the miner impales his lover on the end of his pickaxe, piercing her breast.
It is two days before Valentine’s Day and the hardworking people of the small mining town Valentine Bluffs are getting ready for the big dance – the first one in 20 years. The cast of largely unknown actors are instantly believable as hardworking, hard-playing blue-collar folks, complete with varying degrees of thick Canadian accent.
However, Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and police chief Jake Newby (Don Francks) get an anonymous box of chocolates that contains a human heart and a warning: “From the heart comes a warning filled with bloody good cheer / Remember what happened as the 14th draws near.” Even the bartender at the local watering hole warns of the town being cursed and recounts a tale of an accident in the mine that occurred 20 years ago during the Valentine’s Day Dance and that killed four men and drove one insane – Harry Warden. He killed the two supervisors and stalks the town every February 14 in case someone is foolish enough to have another dance. The story is part town history and part local legend.
Pretty soon, people start dying and it looks like ol’ Harry is back in town, or is someone else imitating him? Of course, the sheriff doesn’t want to call for extra help for fear it will create a panic and even covers up the cause of death of the launderette owner in one of the dumbest moves since the Mayor of Amity kept the beach open in Jaws (1975).
Director George Mihalka inserts memorable touches of local color, like the three friends that cook their food on top of a warm car engine. He also shows the tension that exists among the locals, like T.J. (Paul Kelman), who went off to the West Coast to make it on his own only to come back and find his girlfriend Sarah (Lori Hallier) going out with his best friend Axel (Neil Affleck). It is these mini-soap operas that flesh out the characters and the relationships between them so that they aren’t just anonymous victims to be picked off by the killer. Some of them even act suspicious, raising questions about whether one of them is the killer or not.
The cast is populated by a few future notable Canadian thespians, like Cynthia Dale (Street Legal), Keith Knight (Meatballs), and Alf Humphreys (First Blood) who all enjoyed diverse and prolific character acting careers. Veteran actor Don Francks (Finian’s Rainbow) was the biggest name in the cast at the time, giving the movie some legitimacy in the plumb role of the sheriff that tries to cover up the truth. The younger actors do a good job of playing a believable tight group of friends. It’s the way they play off each other with a familiarity that comes from friends that have known each other all their lives.
I like that Mihalka shows the locals working in the mine, which gives My Bloody Valentine an authenticity that grounds it while all these gory murders occur. The no frills direction also keeps things grounded as the filmmakers never forget to keep the focus on the characters and the story. While most ‘80s slashers look cheap, this one is well-directed and shot by Rodney Gibbons, setting an ominous mood at the right times and during the other times depicting a slice-of-life look at a small mining town.
Inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), My Bloody Valentine occasionally employs point-of-view murders. It also features some rather creative kills, like the owner of the local launderette stuffed in one of the dryers, her skin scorched. Another victim is drowned in a pot of boiling hot dog water. Mihalka uses the dark, dank mine for maximum effect during the tense climax. The claustrophobic setting only enhances the terror as he employs jump scares and fake outs as Harry stalks the group of friends in the mine.
Director George Mihalka had a two-picture deal with producer John Dunning and when the first one – a comedy – stalled because one of the screenwriters had health problems, the second one went first instead. He was given an outline for a story called The Secret written by Stephen Miller and was told that Paramount Pictures was interested but only if it could be ready for a February 14 release. It was late July and there was no screenplay.
Dunning brought in Los Angeles writer John Beaird who started working on a first draft while the line producer and production designer scouted locations in Nova Scotia. The only place they could get coal mines was on Cape Breton Island. They knew that a few were being decommissioned and ended up in North Sydney with the Princess Mine that was about to be converted into a museum. They met with mine experts who pointed out things to them that they used in the movie to give it authenticity.
Filming began in mid-September 1980 and was a challenge not only because of time constraints but shooting in the mine was dangerous with the possibility of methane gas buildup. No lighting fixtures could be more than 25 watts because of the danger of sparking. The production used lime dust to prevent sparking but it would get in people’s lungs and eyes. In addition, at that time of year it also got quite cold down in the mine. Principal photography was finished at the end of October/early November.
The producers sent a cut of My Bloody Valentine to the MPAA who told them that it would get an X rating unless they cut out some of the gore and violence. The popularity of bloody slasher movies like Friday the 13th (1980) and the murder of John Lennon caused a significant backlash against movie violence and Mihalka believes that his movie was punished as a result. The MPAA still wasn’t satisfied and the movie underwent several more edits with approximately nine minutes of footage removed, some of which was reinstated on the 2009 DVD and some lost forever.
As a kid I can remember the movie’s iconic poster and its notorious reputation as a particularly violent horror movie. The added footage of gore and violence in the 2009 DVD certainly enhances this reputation. My Bloody Valentine still holds up as one of the better slasher movies from the ‘80s with its novel setting and the Valentine’s Day festivities. It was later remade into a lackluster movie that was released in 2009 replacing the realistic-looking cast with one populated by attractive young stars and starlets while also diluting the original’s political commentary.
Mihalka has jokingly referred to My Bloody Valentine as The Deer Hunter (1978) of horror films and he’s not entirely wrong as his movie deals with some of the same issues – blue collar protagonists in a small town where the main industry is drying up – only instead of having harrowing scenes of Russian Roulette, he employs a series of graphic deaths that begin with the wrong end of a pickaxe. This gives My Bloody Valentine a little more depth than your typical slasher movie and is one of the reasons it remains highly regarded among fans of the genre.
Burrell, James. “Heartstopper! Harry Warden’s Reign of Terror Continues.” Rue Morgue. January/February 2009.
“Canuxploitation: The Primer.” Canuxploitation!
“Interview: George Mihalka.” Canuxploitation! May 9, 2009.
“My Bloody Memories: An Interview with Director George Mihalka.” Terror Trap. January 2005.