The success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, which drew inspiration from Black Christmas, ignited a massive slasher craze from 1978-1984. Both foundational slashers still hold high regard today, so it’s not surprising that many of the slashers that followed would attempt to emulate their predecessors to achieve similar success.
A subset of those horror movies directly lifted the holiday motif, laying claim to specific days. For many, it worked. Friday the 13th launched a massive franchise. New Year’s Evil rolls off the tongue when thinking of New Year’s Eve horror. And My Bloody Valentine, released forty years ago on February 11, 1981, became irrevocably intertwined with Valentine’s Day. My Bloody Valentine’s longevity extends far beyond its title, though, owing much to its worldbuilding, affable characters, and, of course, its bloody kills.
In its initial theatrical run, the review in the New York Times said the film “probably won’t make you shiver with fright, but it’s almost certain to make you squirm, first with irritation and then with revulsion.” Granted, critics were notoriously unkind to slashers back then, and the irony is that the film was famously trimmed of its gore to avoid an X-rating. Luckily, that gore has been restored in recent Blu-ray releases, but it speaks volumes about the film that it was able to build up a massive fanbase even in the decades where that gore cut was out of reach.
Much of the credit belongs to the way screenwriter John Beaird and director George Mihalka take the time to flesh out the town of Valentine Bluffs and its residents. The little mining town with a population of 3,785 feels lived in; they take pride in their township, and it shows in the way they deck every street and shop with holiday décor. It’s a place where everyone knows each other, and most of them work at the Hanniger Mining Company. Revealed in conversations, many embrace the small-town life because they don’t have any choice. Like lead protagonist Jesse “T.J.” Hanniger (Paul Kelman), who arrives at the beginning of the film after a lengthy failed attempt to find success out west. Then there’s the central love triangle between T.J., former flame Sarah (Lori Hallier), and new beau Axel (Neil Affleck).
T.J.’s return coincides with the first return of Valentine Bluffs’s official holiday dance and a new series of gruesome murders. The deaths are thought to be Harry Warden’s return, a crazed miner that went on a killing spree twenty years prior. After work supervisors abandoned the mining team in favor of the annual Valentine’s Day dance, a tunnel collapsed and trapped the workers for days, with only Warden found alive. He spent a year in an institution but broke out on Valentine’s Day to enact revenge on those supervisors. After Warden carved out their hearts and warned he’d return if ever another dance commenced, it put an official moratorium on the festivities. The official attempt to reinstate the dance canceled yet again, the town’s youth decide to host a Valentine’s party of their own, prompting a bloodbath like never before.
Gore cut or no, there are some fun and creative kills as “Harry Warden” hacks his way at random through town. The moment poor Mabel (Patricia Hamilton) is found, scalded in the laundromat’s dryer, indicates that someone else has donned Warden’s uniform- even though she seems targeted for being the head of the decorating committee. The typical hallmarks that spell certain doom in slashers, like premarital sex, don’t apply here. The murder-mystery starts slowly at first until the final thirty-minutes when a slasher-within-a-slasher plays out in the mines. Drill bit deaths, a nail gun to the skull, a head shoved into boiling hot dog water, and pickaxes impaled through multiple victims all indicate a blue-collar killer adept at turning anything handy into a weapon.
No trip to Valentine Bluffs would be complete without a nod to “The Ballad of Harry Warden” by composer Paul Zaza. The crooning folk ballad kicks in after Axel’s maniacal laugh ushers in the end credits, retelling the haunting legend that doomed Valentine Bluffs’s ability to ever approach Valentine’s Day with any normalcy.
Forty years later, My Bloody Valentine still reigns supreme as the quintessential holiday horror movie. It’s a uniquely perfect blend of blue-collar horror and small-town holiday fare, full of memorable kills and characters. There’s more than one way to lose your heart to Valentine’s Day-set horror, as the tagline puts it, but it’s still hard to beat this 1981 favorite.