Sunday, October 26, 2014

Census Bloodbath: The Ballad of Harry Warden


In the spirit of October masquerade fun, now comes the crossover between this here webzone and Brennan Klein's Popcorn Culture, just about the best blog you could ever read, and even better if you're a horror aficionado!  From now till Halloween, I'll be wearing the mask of someone who actually knows shit about the slasher genre, while Brennan will (far more ably) review some spooky 1950s science fiction!  Join us!  Or I'll be forced to use even more exclamation points!

Directed by John Mihalka
Written by Stephen Miller and John Beaird
With Paul Kelman (T.J. Hanniger), Lori Hallier (Sarah), Neil Affleck (Axel), Keith Knight (Hollis), and Peter Cowper (Harry Warden)

Spoiler alert: severe

In the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, mini-moguls everywhere took notice of the enormous return on investment you could generate from faking the coital interactions and messy deaths of attractive young folks, preferably on or around a day of some cultural significance, such as Christmas, or New Year's, or, as in the case of My Bloody Valentine, International Workers' Day.

"Hi! I'm here for the Communist party."

In Canada, they paid special attention, since they'd invented the modern slasher genre already with a film vastly superior to its proximal successors.  But this isn't the story of Black Christmas; instead, this is just one chapter in the story of how things came full circle back to the Great White North, where Canadian producers earned a reputation for quality slasher pix.

But if there is a single slasher more Canadian than My Bloody Valentine, it must feature a dozen teens trapping fur and jacking lumber, literally, before the Mad Mounty mauls them to death with his pet sasquatch.  Indeed, if there's a film of any kind more Canadian than Valentine, you could only call it The Final Sacrifice (or, possibly, The Barbarian Invasions).

Valentine began codenamed The Secret, but it was always a bandwagonerthe producers just didn't want anyone else to steal their "idea."  So, when you think about it, it's miraculous that Valentine's script took the specific form it did, rather than another routine pubescent massacre.  Valentine revolves instead around the young adults of a coal mining town and the depredations of the mysterious Miner.  The latter is a fine creation, attired in the coal miner's black jumpsuit and breathing maskseeing everything and giving nothing through enormous insectoid eyes.

Valentine's something of an economic fable, and as such you'd be easily forgiven for assuming that the Valentine's Day gimmick was the overlay, rather than the conceptual core.  But as mercenary as the holiday framework might have been, it's the very confluence of these two seemingly disparate streams that gives the tale of Harry Warden that gloss of the urban legend that's so very hard to resist.  And yes, there really is a balladWhich is awesome.

Welcome to Valentine Bluffs, a collapsing mining town played by a recently-collapsed mining town.  In one of those serendipitous moments that feels cooler than it is (since it also signifies a community's lost livelihood), when John Mihalka was looking for a place to set his plutonian slasher he found Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, the site of an abandoned mine thatcruciallyremained operational.  With such a palpable location, Valentine feels every inch of 900 feet below ground, and looks like a film with a budget ten times its actual cost.

Since Valentine was already an expensive endeavor as far as slashers go, this means it looks sharp.

The deep earth photography on Valentine is itself the stuff of legend: every review is obligated to relate the pains taken to photograph the mine under the constraints imposed by the dim safety lights and the methane-heavy air.  Mihalka, whose story begins with the very same brand of industrial catastrophe he sought to avoid, was uncomfortably aware that his cast and crew courted ironic death on a level that only Brandon Lee and Paul Walker would ever achieve.  (Hopefully, the scene where the Miner obsessively smashes each light, incurring those dangerous sparks, was cleared by a safety officer.)  Despite the difficulties, the results obtained by cinematographer Rodney Gibbons are claustrophobic without ever surrendering the mine's gritty detail to curtains of black, nor the clarity of the Miner and the Meat's struggles to fulfill their functions in the film's extended climax.  (I never fully understood complaints of this natureit's dark! it's scary!before watching the demi-climactic chase sequences in Prom Night, all five hours of which appear to take place behind a lens cap.)

But maybe the mine's not even the most important part.  It would be too little to say (as Mihalka has) that the mine and the town are mere characters in Valentine; that denigrates the achievement.  There is something accomplished in Valentine rare enough for any movie.  There's more to it than just geographical specificity in Valentineit's the community.  The humans of Valentine Bluffs seem extraordinarily real and functional, and even if sometimes their mustaches don't, it's grace notes like that which give Valentine its charm.  There's a deliberate nostalgia to the work that I suspect was recognizable even in 1981: the town's dynamic, and that of its young adults in particular, makes Valentine feel like the slasher follow-up John Carpenter might have made at the outset of the 1980s, if only The Fog hadn't been an old-timey ghost story instead.  So, alright: let's finally crack this ribcage open.

Twenty years ago, Valentine Bluffs held its last Valentine's Dance.  On that fateful night, the whole town had packed themselves into the Union Hall for the festivities, except for a few miners and their supervisors working the late shift.  The supervisors decided that they could take off early.  But they left without checking the methaneand no one was there to warn the miners below of the lethal build-up.  The explosion may have killed most of them outright; but, more likely, more horrifyingly, it only trapped them with Harry Wardenthe man who, in any event, would be the sole survivor of the terrible disaster.  Deranged by his experience, Warden suited up one last time, not to return to the sooted pit, but to claim his bloody revengeand his negligent bosses' hearts.  He left Valentine Bluffs with a warning: never hold another Valentine's Dance again.

But with a generation come and gone, and Warden locked safely away, the town comes together to revive its eponymous tradition.  The young adults are positively febrile at the prospect of a new Valentine's Dance.  Even the old folks can barely contain their enthusiasm.  So, when the Sheriff gets a mystery valentine, just guess what's in the box.

If you needed more than one try, it doesn't mean you're a bad or worthless person, but it does mean you might be what we call "structurally unemployed."

The authorities keep their discovery to themselves while they try to track down the vile package's sender.  However, in the quiet center of the town's storm of excitement over the dance are our tripartite protagonists, depressed thanks to their surprisingly-effective love triangle.  On two of its points are Sarah, who is probably best described as "a woman" (yet, through whatever acting acumen possessed by Lori Hallier, this always seems like enough), and Axel, the coal-mining man she settled for, who has the anger and jealousy issues customary in depictions of his class, but otherwise appears upright.  On the final and seemingly most acute point is T.J., Sarah's former flame and Axel's former best friend, who actually had ambitions once.  This is what caused him to flee from Valentine Bluffs, abandon Sarah, and seek his fortune on an undefined "coast," presumably not the coast Valentine Bluffs sits on.  Now he's back, but unlike in the Angels' song, the situation is a lot more complicated than beating up Axel until he's not Sarah's boyfiend anymore.  Eventually Sarah gets so sick of their posturing she renounces both of them and their chimpanzee games.

Generally criticized, I appreciate the vagueness with which T.J.'s offscreen adventure is described.  His unpleasant reticence suggests the travails of a man who has tried too hard to even start to process how he only wound up back where he started.  Paul Kelman's work isn't conventionally great acting, but the scowl he's welded onto his facethat usually varies solely in whether it's communicating disappointment, disaffection, envy, or self-loathingis wholly effective, and maybe a little familiar.

My God!  T.J. is almost J.D. spelled backwards!

You could call him a crybaby, since he's the mine owner's son, standing to inherit the enterprisebut on T.J.'s face we see the doubt that he'll inherit anything but debt and a hole in the ground.  (I'll speak of Nick Affleck's performance, which turns out to kind of suck, momentarily.)

While they struggle, people on the margins are being picked off by the Miner, but his killings don't reach their final orgiastic scope until the dance is cancelled (without explanation) and the kids decide to console themselves with a party in the very mines themselves.  Well, I'm sure you can see where this is headed.  Except, in 1981, you'd have not been able to see very much.  This is the part where any discussion of Valentine acknowledges that the version available today and the one released theatrically are two radically different films, even though the quantitative difference is only three minutes of footage.

But what a difference.  Thanks to the MPAA's moral warriors, the release version was denuded of some of the most nutritious grue ever beheld by a camera.  This includes one kill that lasts something upward of a minute, and could only have taken place in a mine shower room where the faucets are just pipes diamond-sawed off into razor-sharp spouts, and whichupon its discoveryinvolves the film's finest and most affecting acting, thanks to a young man named Rob Stein who evokes how Conrad Veidt would have played it upon seeing Mary Philbin's skull mounted onto a shower head.

I make fun, but it's pretty outstanding.

The caveat here is that the woman who actually looks like Mary Philbin is kebabed, offscreen and along with her lover, by a very phallic drillbit, in Valentine's one serious equation of sex and death.  (The film opens with a frivolous one; meanwhile, our Final Couple could hardly be virgins.)  These unseen deaths, combined with descriptions by Mihalka that suggest they were actually filmed, lends some credence to the producer John Dunning's claim that there were nine additional minutes of footage.  The likeliest solution to this mystery remains that someone just lost count, but it's tantalizing, isn't it?

Nonetheless, the three minutes that have been restored are absolutely vital to the effect of Valentine, representing a difference of a full letter grade or more.  Even the ramshackle, washed-out appearance of the old elements, stored in Dunning's office for a quarter century, rather adds to their effect than detracts.  For my part, I make no excuses for living in the Future: I've not even bothered with the theatrical cut, which could only be castrated in comparison.

Now I have to admit that I lied to you earlier: you wouldn't be able to see where Valentine was headed, unless you were somehow so disengaged with the film you viewed it solely as a screenwriting construct.  That's because Valentine really does take its inspiration from Friday the 13thor, in an attenuated way, Psycho.  I did some outside reading for this project (which in part explains its unforgivable tardiness), and the defining feature of the slasher doesn't seem to be the state-of-the-art gore, or the slut-punishing, or anything of that nature.  No, the slasher trope that cannot die might well be the Dumbassed Twist Ending.

Psycho passes, despite how silly Norman Bates looks with that mop on his head, for its super-classic novelty and its flawless shepherding of its viewer.  F13's reveal is so much clumsier, but ultimately works on the basis of its own wackiness.  Black Christmas is the best, leaving its ending creepily unresolved, based on the ambiguity of whether a pair of sound effects are diagetic or not.  But then you move to Prom Night and Terror Train.  The former doesn't fail to function so much as it's simply obvious, given that Leslie Nielsen was a little too old to be stumbling around in the dark like that.  The latter features a truly breathtaking twist that, once you get that breath back, you realize not only doesn't make a ton of sense, but also has exactly zero impact upon either character relationships or the unfolding plot.

My Bloody Valentine 3D, the 2009 shitheel remake, though unspeakably worse in every other conceivable way (script, acting, casting, production design, costume design, special effects, sound effects, editing, cinematography, craft services, mustache wrangling), still manages a slightly more psychologically plausible variation on its source's ending.  I warned of spoilers, so let's just say it: in Valentine '81, though it is Peter Cowper in the suit, it's not Harry Warden.  It's not even T.J., the guy who hates everybody and everything in Valentine Bluffs except for the woman he can't have, and who's been brooding about it a little menacingly for the whole film.  Nosurprise!it's Axel, the normal joe, whose dad wassurprise? but I thought you knew!one of the supervisors Harry Warden slew, back in 1961.

According to Neil Affleck, the identity of Valentine's killer was kept hidden from the cast.  However, Affleck himself knew, from pre-production onward, that he was the murderer, thanks to a cast made of his arm in order to complete the illusion of the Miner's dismemberment for the climactic scene.  Affleck really shouldn't repeat the second half of his story, because not knowing is the only excuse for his failure to do literally anything that would suggest Axel wrestled with demons more profound than whether Sarah would continue to have sex with him.

And I don't know why you'd want to procreate with someone this shambling and slow, but tastes do differ and you can blame the editing, anyway.

And that's another reason this review comes at a distance of a week from screening the thing.  (The twist, I mean, not that disastrous cut during the chase that depicts Sarah retreating from the Miner at the pace of a not-very-brisk walkthough that cut does suck.)

I was ready to write Valentine off as something potentially great ruined by the caprice of its screenwriters, who after all were just trying to jam as many chills and kroovy spills as possible into 90 minutes.  But then I kept thinking about it; I could feel my mind changing.  By the time I was seeking a copy of the Special Edition BD release with all those great murders for a reasonable price, I realized I loved it after all.

Complaining about the twist is like asking why the man with the hook doesn't just bash in the car windows and kill those dumb necking teens.  When it's revealed to be Axel, it's just the most salient expression of the spirit that I've said animates Valentine, the silly but thrilling urban legend.  And it'd be a mistakebecause Mihalka has acknowledged itto overlook the programmatic component of Axel's turn to costumed supervillainy.  Valentine is a legend about the depth of the dysfunction a tragedy can create, and this dysfunction informs every moment of the film, from the accident that sends Harry Warden into darkness to the recapitulation of his madness a generation hence.  But it's worse than just one tragedy. Valentine's about being trapped in a cave-in that's swallowed the whole world; T.J. and Sarah will never really make it out of that mine.  Axel doesn't survive solely because sequels are the thingand one of the more charming things about Valentine is that there never was a sequelbut because the specter of a mutilated miner, and the economic malaise he represents, shall continue to haunt Valentine Bluffs forever.  (This part came true.)

The truly impressive things about Valentine are all surface level craft (and that's enough), but there's something to be said for a movie that conveys such a depressing notion without ever being depressing.  That's the power of a myth, even a little one like this, and Valentine is a great film, entirely worthy of its rehabilitated reputation.

Killer:  Capitalism, I mean Axel.
Final Girl Humans: Sarah and T.J.
Best Kill: The scariest kill is the woman being turned into a fountain, but the most technically proficient and immediately shockingrepresenting the moment that the movie turned from good young adult melodrama with murders to a slasher masterpieceis when the bartender takes a pickaxe to the chin and it comes out his fucking eye socket.
Sign of the Times:  People still have jobs.
Scariest Moment: Not quite the shower kill itself, which is the second scariest moment; rather, it's witnessing Rob Stein's John see the shower kill, enter the Total Perspective Vortex, and lose his shit forever, all of which is visible in his eyes, and is still visible, scenes later.

Weirdest Moment: The film begins with a scene of softcore gasmask porn.  What?  Oh, I'm sorry, I thought this section was "Moment I Almost Took Off My Pants."
Champion Dialogue: "Beware of what you make fun of, you little asshole!"  "Who?"  "You!"  "Me?"  "Yes, you!"
Body Count:
  1. Gasmask woman gets her heart broken (mine had already broken when she ruined the fun by taking off the maskwhat a waste, what a damned waste)
  2. One of the negligent supervisors undergoes mandatory health and safety training
  3. The other negligent supervisor undergoes mandatory health and safety training, off-camera
  4. Mabel the Laundress learns not to set the clothes dryer to "broil"
  5. Happy the Bartender, in the midst of playing a mean prank, gets an eye-popping scare of his own
  6. Dave goes bobbing for hot dogs
  7. Sylvia takes/becomes a shower
  8. Harriet and
  9. Michael are forever wed
  10. Hollis is so shocked by a film's accurate depiction of a nail gun's operation that he dies
  11. Howard is only pickaxed offscreen, but his body is despoiled in a fun physics experiment that anybody could try, assuming they have a 900 foot pit and a lot of rope
  12. Patty is eviscerated by a pickaxe; I don't have a neat way of describing this one, and it's a bit of a drag that Valentine's last kill is also by far its dullest; however, we do get see an arm come off before credits
TL;DR:  You can learn a lot about someone by the movies they force you to watch.  I've learned that Brennan Klein is a nice, sweet man.  He's learned that I'm a jerk.  But as I am a secret Cenobite, his pain is my pleasure, and My Bloody Valentine is, like, the best.  I have also learned that his format requires better notetaking discipline than I ordinarily evince, so there's that.  (Brennan previously reviewed My Bloody Valentine here.)
Score:  8/10 (the unrated cut totally counts)

The old switcheroo!
Brennan's Cardboard Science:
Invaders From Mars
The Day the Earth Stood Still

My Census Bloodbath:
My Bloody Valentine
The Burning


  1. Wow! Great work! During your delay over the past week I've been pining away like a widow on her balcony, but I'm happy to see you did your research. I've been so embroiled in the genre for so long, it's a breath of fresh air to get a new perspective on it.
    I'm truly glad you enjoyed the movie! And I linked to your review at the top of my very own Bloody Valentine review. You can expect The Day the Earth Stood Still this week and Them! probably after October concludes. Unfortunately my various appeals to the home video Gods have been unfruitful and I've been slightly delayed.
    As always I commit the sin of coveting your blogging prowess and await your next missive from the world of bad (but secretly not) movies.

    1. I was poorly managing my time, as is my wont.

      And seriously, I don't know how you keep the names straight in your line of work. I mean, in Valentine, I could remember the main three, and Hollis (mustaches of that magnitude can never fail to make an impression), but then there's F13 and I can name... Mrs. Voorhees. Black Christmas, which I think's pretty upstanding, I can name... two of the actresses, and my man Keir Dullea. I think it's less a sin of the slasher genre than the ensemble cast form which they necessarily adopt, but man. Hard work is hard. (And that's why I cheated.)

      I look inordinately forward to Earth Stood soon, and Them! when you can! P.S.: I assume you've seen it, but in case you haven't, I really have to reiterate how little need there is to ever seek out My Bloody Valentine 3D for anything but a review obligation. I thought it would helpful as well as fun in its own right. Fucking up Valentine '81 would be difficult, I thought. You'd basically have to change everything but the bare semblance of the premise to do it. Well, SO YOU WOULD.

    2. Case in point: I forgot a kill. Doggoneit.

    3. Nevertheless, My Bloody Valentine 3D lies in my future, probably in a prestigious double bill position with 2001's Valentine, notable for starring Katherine Heigl and David Boreanaz and doing absolutely nothing to suggest that it was released in a post-Scream world.
      And those darn names are the bane of my existence. After your experiences, I'm sure you can understand why keeping track of each character and their one trait is literally the toughest portion of my job. Although, it does help that when characters disappear, their friends search around for them and call their name. Frequently I can't pinpoint a character until after they've already shuffled off this mortal coil.

  2. (Psst. We're doing a super special awards show for Scream 101 where we are voting for the best and worst of the films we watched over the past year. If you would like to vote, you would earn my eternal respect: )