Bloody Birthday (1981) **
Director: Edward Hunt
Runtime: 1h 25m
It’s not exactly controversial to denounce astrology as so much bull manure, peddled by frauds and buffoons at the expense of the extremely gullible. But I find it hard to get worked up over, after all most practitioners of astrology see it is a fun diversion, and put about as much stock in their daily horoscope as they do in the contents of their after-dinner fortune cookie. The true believers are also inoffensive enough. If a bunch of middle-aged women with too much time on their hands want to believe their mundane lives are determined by the stars, I fail to see why it should bother me (besides, having logged 12 hours in Stardew Valley over the last week alone, I can hardly fault someone for wasting their spare time). At its core, astrology is just an outdated system of rationalizing the world, explaining why evil exists and why the designs of good men are so frequently foiled. It may be rubbish, but it’s not like mankind has come up with a better system in the past 4000 years for explaining its place in the word. Modern day physics is certainly an improvement when it comes to tracking the motions of heavenly bodies, but it doesn’t even bother with more human concerns. Those questions have been left to a plethora of other disciples to answer, often with mixed results. Indeed, relying on the frequently flawed lenses of economics, psychology, and philosophy can lead an otherwise intelligent person to all manner of bone-headed conclusions. Quacks abound, and they’re a lot more convincing now then when they were busy drawing star charts. For that reason, I find Bloody Birthday’s explanation for its trio of sadistic children refreshing. They’re not evil because of a traumatic upbringing like The Other (1972) or an inborn abnormality like The Bad Seed (1956); they’re evil because they were born during an eclipse, and consequently lack all compassion because they were deprived the nurturing influence of Saturn. It’s an explanation that is impossible to take serious, which makes it a perfect set up for some ludicrous fun. Too bad Bloody Birthday can only deliver that intermittently.
Bloody Birthday begins in 1970, when three children are born in a small town during an eclipse. Given that eclipses last only a couple of minutes at the outside, this is quite the coincidence but I’ve been asked to swallow bigger whoppers by horror movies before, so I’m inclined to let it pass without much ridicule. The film then immediately flashes forward ten years, when the trio has grown into a bunch of evil little kids: named Debbie, Curtis and Steven. Just how evil are these brats? Well, their evil runs the gamete from obnoxious (Debbie charges the boys a quarter to peep on her sister while she changers) to vicious (the trio ambush and murder a young couple making out in the cemetery). Just how the three kids discovered that they are all murderous psychopaths, and how they decided that they could trust each other is left off camera, mostly because it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Anyway, in the run up to their joint 10th birthday, the trio has been escalating their killings from the occasional homicide to an outright murder spree.
This being a small town, the local law enforcement is not really up to the task of dealing with a pack of prepubescent serial killers. The local chief, Sheriff Brody exemplifies this general incompetence, by questioning his daughter’s elementary school class in the hope that they can lead him to the killer. To be fair, the killers are actually there, indeed his daughter Debbie is one of them, but he as no reason to suspect that. More’s the pity for him, as the trio has just selected him as their next victim. Their plan to have the sheriff slip on a carefully place skateboard fails, because Brody isn’t a cartoon character, so Debbie distracts him and has Steven subdue him with a baseball bat. Once he’s dead the three can pose his body in such a way that makes it look like an accident. It’s at that point that their classmate Timmy happens by and catches them halfway through the act. Timmy is a rather dense lad so he doesn’t suspect anything, but the trio thinks he’s a risk. So, the next day Curtis locks him in an abandoned refrigerator while the two are playing in the junkyard. Timmy keeps his head and manages to escape shortly before he suffocates.
Timmy is no goody two-shoes, but in a movie with not one but three child psychopaths he’s a breath of fresh air; after all I’d take Jim Nightshade any day over Rhoda Penmark. Only problem, is that being a minor scoundrel in his own right means that the adults and even his big sister will be less inclined to take his word about any of the strange goings on around town, particularly those related to Curtis, Steven and Debbie. Unfortunately, his sister is the only help he’s likely to get, as his parents are out of town on an extended (indefinite?) vacation. Ultimately, the only thing keeping Timmy alive is the fact that the trio has other targets on their to kill list that rank a bit higher than him. Chief among them is their teacher, Miss Davis who refuses to give the class a day off for the trio’s birthday party or dismiss her class when the school bell rings (Ok, I see where the merry child murderers are coming from on this one). Then there are all those teens making out around town that need their numbers culled. Why the trio hate this demographic so much has more to do with the expectations of an 1980s horror movie (namely that attractive young people will be killed in various states of undress) than it does from any internal logic. Still though Timmy will have to smart, which is gonna be a tall order as he doesn’t even suspect that the trio is trying to kill him, thinking that the whole being locked up in a refrigerator was just Curtis’ idea of a practical joke.
At this point, you’re probably expecting the trio’s birthday party to turn into a gruesome, over-the-top massacre: Blood splattering on birthday cakes, party games re-purposed as torture devices, a bouncy castle bestrewn with human limbs, etc. Indeed, on the surface such a sequence seems to be the film’s raison d'etre. By 1981 American audiences had already had Halloween, Christmas, New Years, and even Valentine’s Day themed horror movies (Halloween (1978), Black Christmas (1974), New Years Evil (1980), and My Bloody Valentine (1981) respectively). With the major commercial holidays spoken for, the next logical step was for a horror movie themed around smaller more personal holidays. Indeed, Bloody Birthday seems to be building towards just such an event, and even seems to be teasing just such a possibility. Hell, there’s even a scene before the party that suggests Curtis has put ant poison into the birthday cakes. But alas, it’s all just a ruse by the filmmakers to subvert our expectations. No doubt director/writer Ed Hunt has only the best intentions in mind, and indeed a horror film that keeps its audience on their toes is a rare and wonderful thing. Only problem is that subverting expectations only works if you replace the expectations with something more interesting that what the audience is expecting. When the subversion is boring, then the movie is just boring as well. Since we’re dealing with third act business here I won’t post any spoilers, but it suffices to say that the hypothetical birthday massacre is far more interesting than what we actually get.
Besides the fact that the film fails to deliver on the promise of a bloody birthday (by my estimate nobody is actually killed on the day of the party) the biggest failing in Bloody Birthday is the lack of energy. In one scene, Debbie invites Timmy up to her tree house, with the intention of pushing him over the side. Through a bit of luck, Timmy turns away from the edge just in time to avoid his fate and notices the book where Debbie keep ghastly mementos from all her murders. He goes to look at it and Debbie stops him, telling him it’s a secret book, like a diary. Timmy then leaves and heads home, saying his sister will be mad if he is late. The skeleton of the scene is perfectly sound; in it is the potential for great suspense. A murder nearly occurs and the murderer is nearly discovered. This should be thrilling stuff, but in practice it’s just boring. Whatever Hunt’s merits as a writer, this scene makes it obvious that he is incapable of drawing suspense from even the best set ups.