17 June 2013

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE HEART OF THE MATTER

1981 - I have said before that it was the best year for slasher movies, and I see no reason not to go right ahead and say it again. It was the year of Friday the 13th, Part 2, probably the best entry in that unmatchably important, though confessedly poor franchise; it was the year of Hell Night, a most uncommonly logical story for killing abnormally well-characterised young people; it was the year of The Burning, which I grow more certain every year is my absolute favorite slasher movie ever made. It is also the year of Halloween II, because if we wanted to have nice things, we'd have to be fans of a different artistically decrepit subgenre.

More to the point, since we are talking about Canadian horror in its many guises here, it is the year of My Bloody Valentine, which describes alongside The Burning the alpha and omega of the slasher movie. While it is all but indisputable that the Friday the 13th movies are the most archetypal '80s slashers, The Burning and My Bloody Valentine "add up" to a single F13 movie, with just about everything that goes into the formula found in one or the other (with one huge, key omission: neither of them has anything like a classic Final Girl or Final Girl sequence). The important difference that The Burning and My Bloody Valentine are both better than any height the F13 franchise ever reached; the final 15 minutes of Friday the 13th, Part 2 alone reach the level where The Burning and My Bloody Valentine spend nearly their entire running times.

For My Bloody Valentine, this is due to a number of factors (including an inordinately well-constructed story that actually permits its characters to behave like halfway intelligent people), but the most important, and almost the first one that shows up, is a sense of place matched by literally no other slasher film I have seen. Oh, sure, the various summer camp slashers sometimes do a fine enough job of capturing the flatness and claustrophobia of being in relatively wild North American forests, and there are fine examples of the '70s proto-slasher doing, as a '70s film will, a lovely job of documenting the physical reality of a space. But My Bloody Valentine is the only slasher I've seen that dabbles in what Werner Herzog so wonderfully called "the voodoo of location". Telling its story against the inextricable backdrop of a coal mining community, the film was shot entirely in the town of Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, and the honest-to-God coal mine that provided the bulk of that town's economy.

There's simply no replacing what this does for the movie's atmosphere and sense of honesty - and if there's a word that you should never even flirt with attaching to a slasher movie, it's "honesty" - and the leveling effect this has on the contrived, generic scenario is nigh-indescribable; leastways, if I could describe, I almost would not want to, because it really must be seen. The grubby bar, the chintzy but lovingly maintained storefronts, the shrill cheerfulness of the mine's above-ground employee common area, and even just the old-fashioned industrial texture wafting off of every establishing shot: these are not things that you'll find in any "psycho killer in the woods" movie. Frankly, the fictional Valentine Bluffs of My Bloody Valentine is right up there with the Bodega Bay (playing itself) of The Birds and the Amity Island (played by Martha's Vineyard) of Jaws, situating the mechanics of a genre film in a blue-collar setting whose veracity is so comprehensive and profound that it has an invisible but omnipresent legitimising effect on the whole of the film: why yes, I am quite ready to believe that inexplicable bird attack/implausibly large shark/gimmicky killer dressed in a miner's suit. Look how humble and realistic the town is!

All that comes later. The film opens with a very different exploitation of its location, in an opening scene that sets the mood even if it takes a little bit of generosity to fit it into the later story logic. We start in the mine in Valentine Bluffs, at the end of a long corridor, and the camera is at an exceptionally acute angle. That's it; just a nice, simple canted angle. There's not, as I remember, another one for the rest of the movie. But the location and the music and the lighting (lighting the inside of the mine was a real problem for the filmmakers, who were constantly running the risk of massive, deadly explosions; the compromise was a lower-lighting situation than you'd be trained to expect from other cheesy '80s thrillers, and my God, does it ever work well) all conspire with that canted angle to put us ill at ease from the very first frame of the picture; and so it's not all that surprising, even without knowing that we've signed up for a slasher movie, when the opening scene finds a lady miner (we're later told that there are no lady miners) and her miner boyfriend trysting right their in the mind, except that the boyfriend turns out not to be, and quicker than you can say "Oh, you saw Friday the 13th, too", she's impaled on a pickaxe that comes right through the front of her body, emerging through a heart tattoo over her left breast, in what is either a cute touch of a tremendously cloying one, I have never quite decided.

Incidentally, before I go on, a word about gore: My Bloody Valentine was cut by some three minutes, nearly all of it trimming gore scenes (or removing material that made no sense without the context of gore) by a few seconds each time. It wasn't until 2009 that Lionsgate restored the material for home video, and that's the version I watched for this review (I have seen the cut film, but not for years); and I have to say, the violence effects, though not really out of control in the pornographic vileness depratment by '81 slasher standards, certainly does not betray what I am sure was a fairly low production budget, and are almost uniformly used to good horrifying effect rather than just freakish gross-out effect. It is a real frustration that almost all of the reinstated material looks so bad compared to the rest of the film, but it's better than nothing.

So, we've got a hell of a location, and satisfyingly queasy, disturbing violence; about time to dredge up the important holiday that falls on a traumatic anniversary, right? As we'll learn eventually, Valentine Bluffs suffered a pair of tragedies 20 years ago: on 14 February 1960, a mining accident caused when a pair of supervisors rushed through the closing procedures in hopes of getting to the town's big Valentine's Day dance (it being rather natural that Valentine's Day would be a big deal in a town of that name. The methane explosion trapped several miners in the dark for several days, and only one man, Harry Warden, was left alive when the rubble was finally cleared, having gone insane and survived by cannibalising his co-workers. He was hospitalised, but on 14 February, 1961, he escaped to kill the two men whose negligence caused the accident, tearing out their hearts with his bare hands in a gruesome celebration of the holiday.

In response, the city fathers agreed to ban all Valentine's Day celebrations forever after, but time heals all wounds, and in February, 1981, Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds), and Police Chief Newby (Don Francks) have concurred that enough is enough, and assigned local business owner Mabel Osborne (Patricia Hamilton) to revive the Valentine's Day Dance with a level of zeal and civic pride never before seen. This despite receiving a very strong warning on Thursday, 12 February (which makes the next day...)* that they really should think about cancelling: the dead lady miner's heart, delivered to the mayor in a shiny candy box.

They don't cancel, not with the town's young folk so excited about the dance; and given that Valentine Bluffs is clearly a company town, with every able-bodied male we ever meet putting in his back-breaking day at Hanniger's mine, keeping the troops happy is a major priority. And with that, let's focus on the human interest story designed, in true slasher fashion, to make the expendable meat seem a little more real and likable: Hanniger's son, T.J. (Paul Kelman) has come back from trying to make it on the west coast (so... Vancouver?), doing what we never quite learn, though he failed at it. He was gone long enough for his girlfriend Sarah (Lori Hallier) to hook up with his friend Axel (Neil Affleck), and that sets up a little triangle which would already make T.J.'s homecoming a real pisser even without his brand new job working as a cog in his dad's mine, the perfect dream-crushing profession for a young man who couldn't hack it doing pursuing his goals.

These three twentysomethings are at least slightly better-etched than the normal slasher fodder - less so their friends, except for the wonderful Hollis (Keith Knight) and his "I was a 25-year-old Wilford Brimley" mustache - but i'faith, delicious character psychology is not something that My Bloody Valentine really wants to waste time on. It is content merely to avoid the slasher pitfall of having thoroughly inhumane characters; nothing happens that's truly unbelievable, with people generally behaving in a way that feels like how someone, not someone hugely intelligent, would act in that situation. For example, after a particularly horrible death, Mayor Hanniger actually cancels the dance, one of the most responsible acts ever taken by a civic authority in a horror movie. And in turn, the disappointed young adult males decide to peacock for their young adult ladyfriends by holding their own illicit party at the mine, not understanding why this is exactly the worst possible decision, because they have no knowledge that there's a killer on the loose. Even the single most baffling action taken by anyone in the whole film - three professional miners agreeing to take their girlfriends hundreds of feet underground for a sightseeing tour - can be at least comprehended, if not entirely defended, on the grounds that young men will e'er be guided more by their genitals than their sense, when the two are in conflict.

But this is all the film aims for: plausible human behavior, not rich, personable human behavior. It's still ultimately a mechanism for massacring young people (and a few less-young), not really a storytelling device.

And yet: a pretty great mechanism. Director George Mihalka may or may not have much talent to speak of - I've seen nothing else in his television-dominated career, of which this was just his second project - but for this one film, he was in pretty immaculate control of how to stage scenes for maximum impact, and while My Bloody Valentine can't break through the barrier that no slasher film after <i>Halloween
could ever truly be scary, it does attain the heights of being one of the small handful of slashers that are pretty effective thrillers, punching up the adrenaline through cheap, but effective tricks (in contrast with the hundreds of films that use cheap tricks poorly). It's easy to outthink - the film is so dogged in setting up a escaped, vengeance-filled Harry Warden as the killer that only a truly innocent genre virgin could actually suppose he's really responsible - and ultimately a tacky, somewhat tasteless excercise in rousing the viewer through nasty violence, because how could any slasher not be? But it never feels crass or hacky, instead feeling very much like the work of filmmakers who wanted to make something worth watching, maybe even more than they wanted to make something profitable. With the slasher formula having been firmly established even as early as 1981, My Bloody Valentine doesn't reinvent the wheel, and the usual caveats about the genre apply; but oh! - that every wheel was so flawlessly rounded to the smallest magnification! - that they all rolled so smoothly and confidently and gracefully!

Body Count: 11, a good strong number that even manages to surpass any Friday the 13th picture made up to that time. Perhaps a good reason to revise that old "the higher the body count, the worse the film" rule for '80s slashers. I am not counting the five dead miners of 1960, for other than an arm, we do not see aught of them.

10 comments:

Chris D said...

Probably my second favourite thing about the Summer of Blood (after the fascinating history lessons) is the titles it brings to my attention. Last year I tracked down copies of Terror Train, April Fool's Day and The Burning on your recommendation and it improved the average quality of my slasher collection immensely.

I'd always intended to track down My Bloody Valentine because my rule of thumb is generally that any slasher which gets remade is of at least some historical interest, but I hadn't expected it to be any good. And I've never even heard of Hell Night, so thanks as always for broadening the scope of my interest in this narrowest of genres.

KingKubrick said...

This movie is great but I love The Burning, and like Chris D, watched it after reading your review of it. You're right in that this film, like Session 9, benefits immensely from the real lived-in location, something no production designer can recreate (no matter how talented).

Brian said...

I'm a fan of MBV (although, to be fair, I'm an degenerate fan of slashers to an absurd degree)but that's not what I need to address here:

As much as I love The Burning (and my god, I love The Burning) it is a form of blasphemy that my atheist soul can not stomach to here it called the best slasher ever, when Halloween is the best HORROR film ever, period.

Tim said...

Chris- Glad to hear I've been helpful! MBV is essential viewing no matter what, just for its notoriety and historical position, but I think it's pretty darn great, obviously. And Hell Night is ridiculously overlooked: it's a slasher film staring Linda freaking Blair. I've found it to be a great way to show off in front of other horror fans.

KingKubrick- It's strange how few horror movies tap into that kind of location magic, because when it works, it's AMAZING. Good call on Session 9, too. A fun experiment, if you can finagle a copy, is to watch MBV right in conjunction with The Boogens, which also involves caves, but they're the world's most obvious sets. Makes the locations in MBV look that much better.

Brian- You have caught me in the midst of a linguistic short cut. Of course, I meant to say that it's my favorite of the 1980s slasher wave. Obviously, the trinity of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween can hardly be touched by anything that followed.

MrRoivas said...

Hey, I've been wondering about this for awhile, and I am wondering if our superb blog master can help me out.

Please enlighten me: For you, what is the appeal of slasher movies? I am genuinely curious. For me, intense gore and characters being brutally murdered has always overwhelmed my senses and filled me with such discomfort and disgust that deriving enjoyment from watching such things happen is about as understandable as enjoying a literal shit sandwich.

But obviously not everyone feels this way. What response do these sorts of films give you that make you come back and watch more?

Douglas Evasick said...

Well this was a very a solid review and you make a lot of good points about what makes the film effective (especially it's location) but as I said I was really turned off by this one! I think the main reason was there was too much country music and the culture that goes along with that for my own personal taste! I know that's a bias but it's much the same way that really bad 80s pop music and culture ruins other movies for people (think nightmare on elm street 4 and all it's 80sness). As someone who can't really stand country music I think that's what made the film go downhill for me! I should probably watch it again with a more open mind!

Brian said...

@Tim - That's fucking better. :)

@MrRoivas - I'm not Tim, but, for me, it starts with the way Halloween affected me the first time I saw it. It was the first (and thus far, one of only 3) horror film that actually scared me as an adult. And, sure, no other film in the entire sub-genre lives up to it, but I find them comfortable and... Hell, I guess I don't even know.

Also, Tim, have you seen Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon?

Tim said...

It started out, for me, because they are absolutely essential time-capsules: both because of how much they depict the look and feel of a time, and for what they reveal about the mind-set of the '80s. And after I watched quite a few for that reason, I found that I enjoyed the formality of the plots, and teasing out the little differences between them.

Also, a well-crafted low-budget gore effect really tickles the part of me that loves filmmaking for filmmaking's sake.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I tried re-watching this recently on Netflix, but, alas, it was the cut version. Not that I need the gore for the movie to be good (because it certainly works without it), but I just hate the idea of watching something cut. Even worse, Netflix and Amazon both promote it as the uncut version. Booooo.

Anyway, this is just fantastic stuff as usual, Tim. You really get to what makes this particular Canadian slasher so great: the setting. It truly is the primary reason it stands apart from so many of its contemporaries, especially the slashers released in North America.

I do want to just add one thing: it's not just amazing that they had to change their lighting due to fear of explosions, but apparently the townspeople were fed up with the production crew invading their space and kicked them out, giving them just 24 hours to finish their scenes in the mine. Crazy.

I know it's almost damn near impossible to procure a decent copy, but I really hope you can get a hold of Rituals (aka The Creeper) and review it for this series. One of my personal favorite Canadian horror films.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Oh. I forgot to add: I want to second Tim's recommendation of Hell Night. A fun mix of Terror Train and something like April Fool's Day...meaning, it's just earnest enough to be effective when it counts, but it doesn't take itself too seriously (it has a lot of fun with its setting, too), making for a good pizza and beer movie to watch with friends. A real, under-appreciated slasher, to be sure.