By Paula R. Stiles
[spoilers for both films]
Making the sheep nervous
When Canadian slasher My Bloody Valentine came out in 1981, it was most famous for its butchering by an MPAA nervous about its scenes of graphic slaughter, dramatis personae – working-class miners in an economically depressed Nova Scotian town.
My Bloody Valentine came out during a recession in both Canada and the U.S. The remake, My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009), relocated the story to a hard-luck mining town, Harmony, in Pennsylvania but retained the premise and storyline of the original. This remake, too, has come out in a period of economic recession.
The killer in both versions, the Miner, brings a unique level of direct socioeconomic commentary to the genre. In both versions, the Miner ferociously attacks the establishment and its figures in addition to the young people trapped with him in this impassible economic morass. As in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), authority figures are either absent or bloodily cut down, but in My Bloody Valentine, such figures are not just ineffectual. They are major targets whose elimination we’re invited to relish and cheer.
The main difference between the original and the remake lies in the agent of change and reform. In the original, this agent is a would-be victim and the killer is enforcing the old order of things. In the remake, the exact opposite occurs. The would-be victims cling to the old, rotten order while it’s the killer who brutally enacts the town’s desperately needed reform as part of a general pattern of revenge.
I have a personal affection for both films because of this. Having grown up in a small-town state with a dead-end Yankee economy in the same region as both films, I can understand both sides. I know first-hand the frustrations of the young protagonists trapped in dead-end jobs and the equal frustrations simmering in both films’ versions (TJ and Tom) of the black sheep who left town for something better, crawling back after he tried and failed to make it in the outside world.
Going into the second film, I looked forward to some vicarious carnage reminiscent of its predecessor. In a time when average people are losing their homes while corporate fat cats get million-dollar golden parachutes, who can’t see one of those fat cats at the end of the Miner’s pickaxe?
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers…
In Act IV, Scene II of Henry VI, Part 2, William Shakespeare famously had a member of the English Peasant Revolt in 1381 incite his cohorts to kill every clerk they could find. The idea was to burn the documents that recorded the onerous taxation keeping English peasants trodden underfoot by the nobility. The peasants appealed to the child king Richard II, trusting that the Crown would bridle the nobility as it had in the past. But the weak Richard failed the peasants and colluded in the murder of their dynamic leader, Wat Tyler, instead.
In the first My Bloody Valentine, authority figures are presented as lethally incompetent. The accident that traps five miners, including the one survivor Harry Warden, is caused by the negligence of two mine supervisors anxious to get off work for the town’s Valentine’s Day dance. Rescued, Harry eventually breaks out of the local insane asylum and murders the two supervisors. He then declares that he will come back and wreak bloody revenge if the town ever has another Valentine’s Day dance. He expects the town to do penance forever in honor of Harry and his ill-fated co-workers. When the next generation decides to break the dead old hand of tradition and hold a dance in the mine itself, Harry returns to fulfill his promise and bloodily re-enforce the old order. Or has he?
The film’s authority figures are worse than useless. Mabel at the local laundromat organizes the dance at first, but is murdered and stuffed inside one of her own dryers. A local barfly is killed right after publicly declaring Harry’s old curse upon the dance. The sheriff can’t even confirm Harry’s eventual fate because he can’t get hold of the insane asylum, or anybody else outside of town. The mayor just stands around and dithers.
The remake turns this around. The old sheriff, Burke, and Ben the mayor murder Harry after his killing spree at the beginning of the film then cover up their crime. The new sheriff, Axel, abandons the film’s protagonist, Tom, to die during Harry’s rampage. He later also marries Tom’s girlfriend, Sarah. When Tom arrives back in town, having inherited the mine, Ben, Burke and Axel all try to intimidate him into not selling it. Ben actually precipitates the murders by moving the final sale back without informing Tom – a lawyer’s move Shakespeare’s angry peasants would recognize. Tom is a disruptive influence in his desire to sell his only asset and possibly doom an “inbred” town that abandoned him ten years before. He must be eliminated.
But it’s everyone else who starts to be eliminated. The Miner strikes first in the seedier part of Harmony, at a motel that rents by the hour. But soon, he strikes right at the town’s heart. He attacks Sarah at her family’s grocery store. He kills Ben in his own house and Burke on Axel’s front porch. And in the climax, he brings down half the mine itself around him. This killer has a lot more on his psychosis than just merry mayhem.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November…
In the first film, the Miner is the Bogeyman, or the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. He’ll chop you into pieces if you wander off the usual path and abandon tradition. We get familiar slasher characters like Patty. Patty is a free spirit, open and joyful in her sexuality and strong in her opinions, so you know right off she has to die. The fact that she’s not a slut at all, but totally devoted to her roly-poly boyfriend, does not save her after the Miner kills him and she loses her will to live. Patty represents the new life in the town that wants to break free of crushing economic conditions and slavery to the mine. At the end, Patty’s male counterpart, black sheep TJ, survives and saves the Last Girl, his ex Sarah, from her current boyfriend Axel, who turns out to be the new Miner. But whether either of them will be able to change anything remains in question.
In the remake, the Miner is a very different figure – a revolutionary. Here, the “monster” is not lethally stagnant tradition but lethally violent change. The Miner doesn’t want to respect the mine but to destroy it. He’s going to drag the town of Harmony, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century whether they survive it or not.
Here, he resembles the terrorist antihero V from V for Vendetta (2005). Based on a British ’80s graphic novel that harshly criticized Thatcherism, the film’s protagonist attacks a totalitarian regime in a future London from behind a mask. “Remember, remember the Fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot,” V singsongs, quoting an old rhyme about 17th century would-be regicide Guy Fawkes.
In a strikingly similar image, the remake reveals Tom as the killer. A flashback montage shows him taking up Harry’s mask from the dead killer’s unmarked grave, his own face merging with it, hidden behind it. Without the mask, Tom feels helpless and disenfranchised, cheated out of his home, his inheritance and the woman he loves by the town authorities. Behind the mask he becomes the Miner: all id, all revenge, brutally devoted to righting wrongs, both his own and others’ (notably, Harry’s lynching). In his attack on the store, for example, he targets and slaughters Megan, Sarah’s slutty, teenage employee. Megan has humiliated Tom’s beloved Sarah by sleeping with Axel and demanding that he leave his wife for her. Here, the reactionary sexual politics of the slasher and the unique social protest of My Bloody Valentine finally come together.
The socioeconomic commentary of My Bloody Valentine sets apart both the original and the remake from other slashers. In one sense, they’re both bloody – very bloody – good fun. But the placement of both storylines in economically depressed settings, and the films’ releases during real-life hard times, give them resonance far beyond the usual scenario of killers with Mommy issues chasing dumb, horny teens. This is cathartic good fun for a frustrated audience that wants to see the right heads roll for once.
First, whispers the Miner, let’s kill all the lawyers…