Bloody Birthday Review
Maxwell Anderson’s play “The Bad Seed” – and its subsequent film version – isn’t a very good piece of writing but it does contain a fascinating central dilemma. What can be done when a child who is universally loved and seems to be perfect turns out to be a psychopathic monster ? The Omen and its first sequel traded on much the same idea, as did The Good Son - a baffling disappointment considering it was written by Ian McEwan. Bloody Birthday is a pretty good example of the sub-genre, made back in 1980 before the murder of James Bulger – and the subsequent debate about the moral responsibility of children who kill – made the whole subject a risky and undoubtedly tasteless proposition. But horror has always straddled the border between good and bad taste and it’s partly the inherent revulsion of the idea which makes the film so interesting.
The film begins in June 1970 when three children are born simultaneously under a solar eclipse. Ten years later, the three little brats are busily engaged in getting rid of various denizens of their neighbourhood in a variety of childishly lethal ways. A couple engaged in heavy petting in a newly dug grave are surprised and then offed with the aid of a spade and a skipping rope; a policeman is killed with a baseball bat; one poor woman gets her eye gouged with a toy arrow. Soon, one of the kids, bored with his toys, gets hold of a gun and starts to exact instant revenge on anyone he doesn’t like. Naturally, any attempt to stop the carnage is greeted with disbelief – how could three kids as nice as these appear to be possibly be psychopathic killers ? This is the problem that faces Joyce (Lethin) and her brother Timmy (Martel) when they discover the truth about their angelic neighbours.
Although Bloody Birthday never quite made the infamous DPP “Nasties” list, it has the look and feel of one of those movies which gained much of their thrill from the knowledge that PC Plod didn’t want you to watch them. Of course we know now, in the cold light of day (and uncut Region 1 imports) that a large number of them weren’t especially good, or indeed ‘nasty’ in any sense other than that denoting the quality of the filmmaking. What many of the films do have however is a low-rent sleaziness that makes them somehow unpleasant to watch even if the on-screen content is pretty mediocre. Bloody Birthday looks cheap but it has a clinging grubbiness that seems to get under your skin. It’s not unlike the feeling that Driller Killer leaves behind – although this is a far more conventional film than Ferrara’s underground masterpiece. A better comparison is William Lustig’s excellent Maniac, a well constructed thriller with taut suspense set-pieces that last in your mind far longer than the more famous gore scenes. Indeed, Bloody Birthday has very little in the way of censorable gore and the murders are handled in a pretty discreet way. But the suspense is handled extremely well with set-pieces extended just long enough to give them an impact before they tumble into self-parody. A good example is the sequence in which Timmy is pushed into a freezer by the appalling Curtis. We’re given just enough time to fear for his welfare before he manages, in a reasonably convincing fashion, to escape. There’s nothing groundbreaking here but to see such carefully built tension in a film which is obviously intended as little more than trashy exploitation is always refreshing.
Children in movies are always a tricky proposition. Either they come across as far too knowing and obnoxious or they are so sickly sweet as to be unwatchable. It’s some kind of miracle, therefore, that the kids in this film are as convincing as they are. Indeed, the level of conviction is such as to make one mildly nervous of ever meeting them. Prize of place has to go to the abominable Curtis (Jacoby) – all teeth and smiles one minute, toting a loaded revolver the next. He’s the one who locks Timmy in the fridge and then goes on to kill his prim and proper grade school teacher. Actually, we’re not too sorry to see the back of her, fond as she is of pronouncements such as, “That bell does not mean that you are dismissed. It is only a signal for me to dismiss you.” Her death is one of the highlights of the film, obeying the inexorable rule of slasher films that at least one of the victims should deserve all they get. Then there’s the allegedly adorable Debbie, played by Elizabeth Hoy, a blonde Heather O’Rourke lookalike who keeps a cuttings album of the people she and her little friends have slaughtered. She also runs a profitable sideline in allowing adolescent males to look through a hole in her closet at her big sister, who has a penchant for dancing in slinky red underwear. On a slightly less exalted intellectual level comes Steven (Freeman), also blonde and prone to wearing outfits that somehow remind you of David Soul. Steven gets the least screen time and is most memorable for doing a remarkably convincing impression of the aforementioned teacher. In support, Lori Lethin gives an engaging performance as Joyce, Timmy’s sister and the nearest thing the film has to a heroine.
Interestingly, despite the title, the birthday portrayed in the film isn’t bloody at all. In a nice reversal, it turns out to be the opportunity for the three little terrors to convince all and sundry that Joyce – the girl who suspects that they might be guilty of mass murder – is mad. This is quite typical of the film, which enjoys setting up clichéd situations and then twisting them just enough to keep our interest. The dialogue is little more than competent but the structuring is pretty good and, unlike in most example of this genre, the story has slightly more ambition than simply being a peg upon which to hang a series of murders. It doesn’t pretend to analyse the behaviour of its juvenile villains but it gives them more character than you might expect. The relationship between Timmy and Joyce is also quite touching and they are a more convincing brother and sister than we usually see on film, largely because there is a tenderness between them which breaks up the inevitable squabbles. I don’t want to hype up the film too much. For all the taut suspense which is created, there is a plodding lack of pace and remarkably little visual imagination. Ed Hunt, the director, has some ability with actors but doesn’t seem to care about how the film looks. As for the rationale behind the behaviour of the kids, well it’s laughable of course – I’m no expert in psychiatry, physiology or astrology but I’m fairly sure that being born during an eclipse doesn’t, a priori, make anyone a psychopath without conscience.
It’s very obvious that Bloody Birthday was made on a budget of about six dollars. It looks cheap, with garish colours and muddy lighting, and it uses its ‘guest stars’ – the distinctly on-the-turn Jose Ferrer and Susan Strasberg – so sparingly as to make you wonder why they were featured in the film at all. Certainly, neither performer adds a great deal to the film – unlike the equally sparing appearance of Ben Johnson in Terror Train for example, where his relaxed authority is used very well. It’s also somehow curtailed with a conclusion that isn’t entirely satisfying. But for a lot of the time it’s an efficient, mildly clever horror film which maintains enough tension to make it worth watching.
Anchor Bay haven’t exactly pushed the boat out on this title. It looks and sounds no more than adequate and the one extra, while diverting, is too brief to be particularly satisfying.
The film is presented in 1.66:1 and looks about as good as it could do considering the source material – i.e. pretty bad. Colours are truly horrible but that’s characteristic of every version of the film I’ve ever seen. There’s loads of unsightly grain – I don’t mean the fine grain that often enhances a transfer but the sort of gravelly texturing which begins to get distracting after a while. Artefacting varies from minor to very noticeable. Contrast is adequate but still not very satisfactory. However, as I said, one has to bear in mind that the original film was made cheaply and, seemingly, without much attention to visual quality.
There are two soundtrack options. The first is “Stereo” but I listened in vain for any stereo effects whatsoever and came to the conclusion – along with most other reviewers – that this was 2 channel mono. Not bad but, again, the inadequacies of the original source are patently obvious. There’s a muddy quality to the dialogue and the music tends to screech. There is also a Dolby Digital 5.1 option which fiddles around with the mono track in the usual Anchor Bay fashion but still doesn’t come up with anything remotely interesting. The only real advantage – if you like these remixes, which I don’t – is the use of the subwoofer to enhance some of the sound effects.
The bonus features are limited to a 16 minute interview with the producer, none other than our old friend, Max “Amicus” Rosenberg and a scrolling biography of Ed Hunt, revealing his origins in sexploitation movies and some of his previous credits – including the not-bad Plague and the truly fucking terrible Starship Invasions. The interview with Rosenberg is very amusing, if a little brief. He begins by flattering his interviewer, Dennis Bartok, by saying “You’re my favourite interviewer” and continues by libelling various collaborators – notably Ed Hunt who he says was “extremely stupid” with a SAT score of 12 , “or maybe 14” – and making some hysterically pretentious statements. The best of these is that Bloody Birthday was inspired by Dostoyevsky’s quote from “The Possessed” that “When God is dead then anything is possible”. This is funny stuff and I really could have done with a whole commentary of Rosenberg, preferably one in which he made more bizarre statements like “All Canadians have diseases”.
The film is divided into 16 chapters and there are no subtitles provided.
I don’t want to suggest that Bloody Birthday is a forgotten classic of any kind or even that it’s all that good. But it’s engrossing and well performed, both things that immediately mark it out from the bulk of slasher movies made in the early 1980s. The DVD is about as good as it could be given the source material but only dedicated horror fans and admirers of the film are likely to find it worth a purchase.