Warning: spoilers for both versions of MBV below!
Isn't it crazy how for years and years people kept demanding to see the uncut kills in My Bloody Valentine to no avail, and then they were miraculously found and released in time for the 2009 remake? The timing was extraordinary! Almost like they could have done it whenever the hell they wanted and were just waiting for a good marketing hook (like, I dunno, a highly anticipated remake) to maximize their sales.
Cynicism aside, this slasher fan was very happy to finally see those kills, fifteen years after first seeing what was occasionally referred to as "My Bloodless Valentine". I saw the film at the exact right time in my "Slasher 101" class, which began in the late '80s with the Friday the 13th sequels that my mom rented for me and continues to this very day - I was fourteen years old and starting to get a better sense of what was good (Halloween, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, etc) and what was not (it was around this time I first saw Iced - to this day one of the worst slashers I've seen). It was also a perfect time in my life, maturity-wise, as well - I was past the point of loving any movie I saw just because I got to see it, but still young enough to get a little scared now and then, and not notice things like Canadian accents that prove to be very distracting today ("We didn't knoow whaaare you warrrr").
In short, when I tell you that My Bloody Valentine is indisputably one of the best slashers ever (and possibly the best one that's never been given a proper sequel), I know it's not just because it's one of the first I saw and have nostalgia clouding my judgment (though having no less than Quentin Tarantino go on record to say it's his favorite slasher movie doesn't hurt). That the film works even without the gory kills that were supposed to be one of its primary hooks is testament to how relatively well crafted it is, and on my semi-annual viewings (every Valentine's Day would be nice, but my revisiting time is severely limited) I'm always reassured that time has been kind to it. Sure, it's got a couple of clunky moments and the actors aren't all the best, but these things are par for the course with slashers so it's hardly worth damning it for such blunders. The lack of blood has been rectified (sort of, more on that later) and repeat viewings confirm that script never cheats with regards to its surprise killer, so I cannot for the life of me see why any slasher fan would dismiss this one.
Especially when it's the rarest of things in the slasher canon: a stealth whodunit. Most mystery-driven slashers are obviously set up that way from the start - as soon as Ghostface claims his first victims in Scream, you start wondering who it is. But in My Bloody Valentine, a perfectly plausible red herring is established early on: Harry Warden. Harry was a miner who got trapped in the mines with some others because their supervisors went to the Valentine dance (the town is called Valentine Bluffs, so the holiday is a pretty big deal there), and had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive until he was finally rescued. A year later, he came back and killed the supervisors, and left warning to the townsfolk not to celebrate the holiday anymore. So for twenty years they've heeded his warning (even though Harry was caught and locked up), but this year they decide that it's safe to resume their tradition. Alas, the night before the dance, the murders start up again - obviously Harry is back, right?
OK, maybe it's not a total left field conclusion that it's not actually Harry, but what's important to know is that the script by John Beaird never tries to make it look like anyone else is the killer, either. There's a bartender who warns them about not celebrating and to show respect for Harry, i.e. the sort of guy who might start killing people just to preserve the legend, but he is killed off five minutes later (in one of the film's best jump moments), and no one else gets the shifty-eyed closeups accompanied by ominous music that we usually see in these things. Hero TJ has apparently just come back to town and has a chip on his shoulder, but even though the murders start up right after he arrives the movie never tries to play up the coincidence - the remake actually does more to suggest original TJ's guilt than the original film itself*! Most whodunit slashers work overtime to make every character look suspicious at one point or another, and have characters wonder who it is, but here, no one ever says "It can't be Harry, it has to be someone else!" or anything along those lines, giving the audience no real reason to suspect anyone else was the culprit. After all, these things are more or less inspired by Halloween, and it's not like the mask came off at the end to reveal Annie's boyfriend Paul or someone - they said it was Michael Myers, and it was in fact Michael Myers.
So the reveal that it's not Harry, but Axel, really works well, and like I said, if you go back and watch the film again, they never cheat. It might seem like Axel is at the party and down in the mines at the same time, but there are time jumps to explain these things, and with Axel shown leaving the party for a good reason (a fight over a girl with his former best friend), it makes sense that he's MIA from the festivities anyway. Director George Mihalka even shows Axel pouting and drowning his sorrows with some Moosehead beer - if you're familiar with slasher beats, it seems more likely he'll be found dead later than it is that he was the killer all along. His motive is quickly explained via flashback, and a silent one at that - yay for a film taking advantage of being a visual medium instead of having someone sit there and rattle off three pages of dialogue, killing the pace. By the time we even learn the real Harry's fate (that he died five years ago, still locked up), TJ's already been dealt with, so the red herring works until the very moment he is unmasked. Contrast this to Prom Night, where someone mentions that the escaped lunatic the film (very lazily) tried to peg as the killer has been caught - canceling him out long before it was necessary.
Another thing you'll be familiar with if you know slashers is the love triangle cliche, which unfortunately - especially in modern entries - usually involves someone cheating (typically, the final girl's boyfriend will be sleeping with her best friend). For the life of me I can't understand why this is so common; I get that adding some personal drama to the mix can increase tension (and hopefully shut up some critics complaining about the characters being blank slates), but why always cheating? MBV establishes a perfectly common idea, that a woman broke up with a man and is now dating one of his friends, and gives the movie all that extra dimension but without making anyone unlikable. There's a nice bit early on where TJ tries to mend fences with Axel (even though it should be the other way around; I never got why Axel was mad at TJ) as they play harmonica and share a bottle (there's a LOT of drinking in this movie), and I can't help but wonder how many other dead teen movies would be improved if their characters' baggage was out in the open instead of built on secrecy.
And I use "dead teen" facetiously when referring to this movie, because most of the guys seem like they're in the late twenties at best. The women were younger (Helene Udy, who played Sylvia, had just turned 18 when filming began) but Paul Kelman as TJ was 31 at the time, making the occasions where the group is referred to as "kids" awfully funny to me. I guess we're supposed to assume that they're college-aged, but as no one ever specifically mentions an age I always take them as five or six years older than that, and find their antics kind of endearing. They're stoked about a party, excitedly producing condoms when sneaking off with a girl, etc. - even though in reality half of them would probably be home with their baby on a Saturday night. But even that also helps make the movie stand out a bit - the characters are older than the average Friday the 13th or Elm Street bunch, so it's not "another dead teenager movie" in more ways than one. Plus, however old he is, Hollis is the greatest male victim character in slasher history, bar none.
As for the kills, they're pretty good with or without the gore. The Miner prefers his pickaxe for sure, but that doesn't stop him from using a nail gun, drill, a pot of boiling water, and, most famously, a shower head to punish these Valentine's Day revelers. The kill scenes are spread out quite well, too - there are three before the party even starts, and Beaird knows the exact right moment to alert everyone that they're in danger - they have fun for a while, but there's still plenty of chasing action down in the mines as they scramble to find a way out with Harry in pursuit. The restored kills are a cherry on top, though it should be noted that their quality dips due to the available elements when the extended cut was put together. I've seen worse such dips (Silent Night, Deadly Night, for example), but it's a shame that we will likely never get a fully restored, high quality version of the full cut of the film. Or maybe one is in the works? The DVD seems to be out of print right now (the Blu-ray went out of print almost as soon as it was released in 2009), so maybe they're working on a better one.
But if not, and you can't deal with the lesser quality during these scenes, the movie works fine without them, with one exception - Howard's death on the ladder is incomprehensible thanks to the MPAA's enforced cuts. I mean, you know he dies, but it's all off reactions and a quick shot of his falling body, not the actual actions of the killer. With the footage restored, we can see it more clearly - the killer ties a rope around his neck and tosses him down from the top, ripping his head off once the rope was tightened by the fall. Otherwise, the edits are actually fairly clean - the theatrical cut just seems like one of those movies where the director doesn't want to make his movie too gory and cuts when the killer swings his weapon, or opted to treat a death as a surprise by having someone find their body. Granted, I never watch it WITHOUT the "X-rated" footage now that I have it, but for nearly fifteen years I had no problem watching the R-rated version. Some folks claim that Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (the most MPAA-mangled in the series) would work with the gore reinstated, but I'm not so sure. It'd certainly be better**, but it's just so, so bad in its released form that the term "you can't polish a turd" always crosses my mind.
Speaking of kills, one thing that I like about the movie is that it *doesn't* feel the need to off everyone. The girl who gets killed in the shower, for example - her boyfriend leaves her alone to procure more beer, because that's what people do when they're about to get laid in a horror movie. What usually happens in these situations is, the guy will come back, find her dead body, and then get offed himself. Here, he gets away and breaks down sobbing in front of his friends, just as another victim is found in the kitchen. This alerts our characters that "Harry" is around and to get away, tell the cops that Harry's back (actually, Axel is the one to suggest this - he tells a bunch of his would-be victims to leave!), keeping a number of major characters alive. The sheriff and mayor also survive, even though they're stock slasher characters that usually see the business end of a creative killing implement (including in the remake).
All that makes it kind of ironic that there isn't a sequel. Except for Tommy Jarvis (and, briefly, Alice), we never see any of the Friday the 13th survivors, and there usually isn't more than one or two anyway. But here, between TJ, Sara, the mayor, the sheriff, and the half dozen others who left the party, there would be a good start for a sequel where Axel (who survives) finishes the job, sparing it the need to introduce a whole new group of folks that we know will be goners. Unfortunately, while the film was technically a success, it only grossed about a quarter of what that year's Friday the 13th Part 2 earned, and with Paramount distributing both films (and, as we've learned, not really proud of their slasher successes) it's easy to see why they'd focus on more Friday and let this other one die. The slasher boom died out two years later anyway, so it's not hard to see why Harry/Axel never got to stalk the Hanniger Mine again. Interestingly, the 2009 remake, which was a huge hit, suffered the same fate - its distributor (Lionsgate) wanted out of the horror business save for its annual Saw series, so even though writer Todd Farmer and director Patrick Lussier had a sequel concept ready to go, they weren't able to make it. And that was seven years ago - a lifetime in Hollywood's eyes - so they're more likely to get another remake greenlit than a sequel.
Someone recently left a comment on one of my articles, chastising me for being a slasher fan (while erroneously accusing me of dismissing The Exorcist, which I would never do - in the article I referred to the fact that I never found it as frightening as many folks because I saw it too late in life. That is in no way a slight against the film) because "if you've seen one you've seen them all". I could argue with this person in a million ways, though there is a grain of truth in what he's saying. There is a pretty standard template with these things, and certainly a number of bad ones doing nothing new (I can levy the same complaint at possession movies, but I digress). The beauty of My Bloody Valentine is that it often does play out exactly like those anonymous movies destined for critical scorn... but in a manner that the people who enjoy these things can appreciate for all the things it's doing differently.
And did I mention the theme song?
*Because he's the killer in that one instead of Axel. So for those who saw the remake first, they're probably expecting the original to have the same killer, and will be floored to see it's the other man. The original is clever even retroactively!
**Except for the sleeping bag kill. Whacking her over and over isn't as awesome as Jason slamming her once and then moving on, knowing the job was done.