Blow Out Your Candles

Bloody Birthday

As we’ve noted previous, the 1980s produced no end of holiday- and special event-themed slasher flicks. My Bloody Valentine, Graduation Day, Sweet Sixteen… the list goes on. And this all came about because of the one-two punch of Black Christmas and Halloween. Producers took note of what audiences were turning out for and they hoped they, too, could make the next Friday the 13th instead of the next New Year’s Evil. And while many of the major holidays got used up, there was also some other event people celebrated that could be turned into horror fodder. We were just a few more quick hits away from The Bar Mitzvah Bloodbath and we didn’t even know it (and as a Jewish person who loves slasher flicks, I would have at least given that movie a try).

Bloody Birthday came out in 1981, during the height of the slasher-celebration flick craze. Sweet Sixteen had to go far more specific with its subject matter because this film already claimed the broad “birthday” title. But while it presents itself as a slasher like all the other films coming out around the same time – it shows up on movie watching sites in the “Slasher” category, and Wikipedia even has it listed as a slasher flick – it really isn’t a slasher in the traditional sense. The body count is high, but we don’t really see much of the murders themselves (outside of one girl getting an arrow to the eye), and the murders themselves (out of the arrow to the eye) aren’t even all that bloody (despite the name of the movie).

No, instead this film feels much more like a play on The Omen (of which the third film from that series was released also in 1981). Three children, born under a bad sign, compelled to kill. While the supernatural aspects of the film are downplayed (their homicidal tendencies are hints at being because “their star charts lack empathy”), the connection still feels implied. Any one of these three kids could have been called “the Antichrist” by another character in this film and it, frankly, wouldn’t have felt out of place. These are evil kids, doing evil things because they can. And if every film where people die can be considered a slasher, then everything in the horror genre is a slasher (which is just silly).

The movie opens with the birth of the three kids, all handled by the same doctor during the time of a total solar eclipse. Ten years later these three – Elizabeth Hoy as Debbie Brody, Billy Jayne as Curtis Taylor, and Andy Freeman as Steven Seton – are all friends together, playing and laughing and plotting murders. They have a scrap book they keep of all their kills, letting them go back and see who they’ve destroyed in their short time on Earth. Their hand in the murders is hinted at early in the film when two teens are killed in a graveyard, but then made explicit when the kids decide to murder Debbie’s own father, the local sheriff, just because. The aftermath of this, with the three kids standing over the sheriff’s body, is witnessed by another local boy, Timmy Russell (K.C. Martel), although Debbie quickly covers, calling for her mom because “dad’s been hurt!”

After the funeral for the sheriff, the three kids begin plotting their next move. Curtis tries to kill Timmy, since Timmy is a witness, although his repeated attempts fail. They also take out a teacher who is nasty to them, and then begin bumping off random people simply to increase their body count. All the while, though, they have their sights on Timmy. While no one suspects the kids for any of the other murders around town (even after both Debbie’s father and sister eventually eat it), Timmy is the material witness that could link it all together. They have to get rid of him, and his sister – Joyce (Lori Lethin), who is increasingly beginning to suspect something is wrong with the kids – before the heat of the law breathes down their neck.

There are two things I want to specifically address with this film because I do think these are two matters that really hold the film back. The first is that the kids are obsessed with killing off Timmy. He’s their main target from fifteen minutes into the film until the end of the movie. He saw them over the body, he could link them to the murders. Except, Timmy is an idiot. Yes, he saw the other three kids standing over a body, but Debbie covered for it. For the rest of the film Timmy never once mentions what he saw. He didn’t tell his sister about it, he did say anything to his parents (who are absent for most of the movie). As far as Timmy is concerned, they found the corpse and then reported it. If the kids could just let it go, Timmy would never have suspected anything.

To be clear, I really think Timmy should have said something. He could have made a comment in passing, which would have then caused someone else to go, “wait… could the kids have done this?” Of course, then the person would get killed by the other kids, and that’s when they’d decide, “Timmy’s gotta die.” That would have worked better in the context of the film, especially with just how far they’re willing to go to try and kill Timmy. They leave a trail of bodies in their wake, and a lot of evidence behind as well, in their repeated attempts to kill another kid. It doesn’t make sense if Timmy is an idiot who never thinks twice about the incident again.

The second point, though, is that this film really isn’t about a birthday. I recognize this is a tad pedantic, but when you call your film Bloody Birthday you need to have the ritual event be either the inciting incident for the film or the climax of the movie. Yes, all three kids were born on the same day, but the birthday in question comes at the two-third point of the film. Some plot happens there, but it isn’t really the crux of the film. Hell, it’s not even a bloody birthday. No one dies, no one gets bloody, no one is even mildly hurt. The best we get is some tension about if Curtis may have poisoned the icing on a cake, but even then it’s a red herring. We needed some birthday violence in this birthday movie.

As far as the production side of things go, the film is fine. It looks like most of the slashers we’ve been reviewing from this era of cinema. Cheaply made, but not quite to the level of made-for-TV production values. There aren’t any big stars in the movie – K.C. Martel was still four years out from playing Ziff on Growing Pains – and the whole thing has a very low-budget, made to claim an event name feel to it. “We’ve got to get this film out while the slasher craze is high, and if we can leech some views from Omen III, all the better.” It feels calculated in a way, designed to suit a market and not a need.

But at the same time, it does kind of work. I wouldn’t call it scary, at all, but it is creepy. Little kids are creepy, and this film knows it. It got two really solid child actors with Elizabeth Hoy and Billy Jayne (sorry Andy Freeman, but your killer kid, Steven Seton, is barely a presence in the film) and it let them be as creepy as they could. Jaybe, who would go on to a lot of other roles after this film, is a real highlight, making Curtis into a properly creepy little terror. This film worked when it just let the kids be murderous little sociopaths and stopped paying attention to Timmy. This is where the movie comes alive and we needed more of it.

We also, honestly, needed the film to be a little more graphic and violent. For a film with “bloody” in the title it’s surprisingly bloodless. Yes, the girl with the arrow to the eye is a decent kill, but it’s the only one that feels like it belongs in a horror movie. The rest of the time the kills don’t feel violent or graphic. It’s a little too staid, a little too safe. I think the kills we have are okay, but they could have been cranked up by about ten percent to make the film a little scarier (and not just moderately creepy).

Bloody Birthday isn’t a bad film. It was, honestly, fairly enjoyable for what it was. I do think it was held back by its lower budget and an unwillingness to go for broke with the kills. It has a winning formula – creepy kids are creepy – and a decent concept. With just a little more fine tuning it could have been a classic. But for anyone doing a watch through all the ins and outs of the horror genre (like me) this was a pleasant little discovery to help brighten a day. It’s fun, it’s dumb, and it has creepy kids. There are worse ways to spend an hour and a half.

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