It’s no great puzzle as to why the “killer kid” archetype is a fairly common one in horror films, ranging from classics, like THE BAD SEED, to non-classics, like the made-for-TV remake of THE BAD SEED. Psychopathic children are just creepy, and no matter how poorly made the film is, you can’t deny that a small child plunging a knife into an unsuspecting grown-up sends a little shiver up your spine. When you see an adult committing some horrible crime, you can fill in some sort of justification for it, usally something alluded to by the plot – an unhappy upbringing, a demon possession, a weird predilection for wanting to know what a the inside of a human head looks like – but with a kid, the answer is so simple that’s it’s positively chilling – this kid is just EEEEEEEEVIL.
From a gallows humor standpoint, the pint-sized sociopath is such a goofy-yet-chilling concept that it works regardless as to the film’s quality, and often it works because the film itself is fairly inept. How else to explain to cult reputations of the likes of DEVIL TIMES FIVE or 1980’s THE CHILDREN, or even the original BAD SEED, which finishes with such a bizarre coda that you can’t possibly take the whole thing seriously? It’s a horrible situation rendered bearable by the ridiculousness of it all, and it means that the likes of MIKEY are, in their own way, just as effectively entertaining as genuinely creepy killer kid pics like THE OMEN.
BLOODY BIRTHDAY, recently issued for the first time on Blu-ray by Severin Films, is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Ed Hunt’s 1981 film about a trio of youngsters who start racking up a body count on a murder spree to celebrate their 10th birthday isn’t an unheralded horror classic my any means, and some of the situations and performances border on the comical, but it’s still a fun watch. Why? Because it’s well-paced, has memorable moments, and features a bunch of little kids slaughtering their way through a small town.
It seems that ten years ago, three children were born during an eclipse that blocked Saturn from being visible to the Earth, which caused something to be missing in the young kids’ bodies and turning them into psychopaths. (Yes, this information, presented as an astrology reading, is as close as we get to an explanation. Just accept it.) Now they’re all in the same class, and glasses-wearing Curtis (CUJO and DR. ALIEN’s Billy Jacoby), the smiling blonde Debbie (Elizabeth Hoy) and the virtually silent Steven (Andy Freeman) have teamed up to decide to make their 10th birthday a memorable one for everyone around them.
Among those on their checklist of doom are their strict teacher Ms. Davis (Susan Strasberg) who has such a terrible demeanor that you can’t really blame them for hating her, Debbie’s sheriff dad (Bert Kramer), her slutty sister (a pre-“Just Say Julie” Julie Brown) and assorted teenagers that just want to have a good time in the back of moving vehicles. Most of their escapades go off without a hitch, but the exception is their attempts on the lives of their classmate Timmy (K.C. Martel) and his sister Joyce (Lori Lethin), who don’t go down without a fight.
In fact, it quickly becomes comical how many times Timmy and Joyce’s lives are in danger without repercussions, and often without them even knowing. The trio of murderous moppets point guns at them, lock them in refrigerators, and nearly run them over with cars, and every time they escape in lucky situations that happen so often that BLOODY BIRTHDAY turns into a Road Runner cartoon – albeit one with sub-plots in which a group of Wile E. Coyotes actually manages to off some other, lesser Road Runners on the side.
BLOODY BIRTHDAY is pretty much exactly what you’d hope for in an early ‘80s slasher film – a solid pace with a memorable death every ten minutes or so, gratuitous nudity (notably from Brown, whose topless changing is peeped by the kids via a conveniently-placed hole in the closet) and a couple genuinely surprising moments. Sure, there’s nothing new on display here, Freeman’s Steven is such a non-entity that you wonder if Hunt decided to hand over his dialogue to Jacoby mid-movie and the post-climax “shocking” ending doesn’t come as the least bit of a shock, but it’s 85 minutes of perfectly respectable slasher fare. Severin’s Blu-ray, preserving the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, looks very good (miles better than the VCI DVD released in 2003), though you may want to watch some of the darker scenes with the lights out in order for the contrast to be most effective.
Special features on the disc include a brief interview with Lethin (produced by Elijah Drenner), who talks fondly about the film and wonders how Strasberg and Jose Ferrer (playing a doctor) ended up in the film. This isn’t answered by the 51-minute (!) audio interview with Hunt, who talks about his other films STARSHIP INVASIONS, THE BRAIN and 1979’s UFO’S ARE REAL [sic] in detail, yet barely talks about BIRTHDAY at all! Still, it’s a great addition and Hunt has a fine memory for the behind the scenes details, though trying to make it through the whole thing in one sitting is a bit of a fool’s errand. Trailers for the film and other Severin releases are also included, along with a 15-minute documentary called “A Brief History of Slasher Films,” which is, as it says, a brief history of slasher films hosted by Adam Rockoff (GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLASHER FILM), and it’s a nice addition even if it’s probably too short to convey any new information to someone already interested in this disc.
BLOODY BIRTHDAY doesn’t rank among the best of the slasher films of the early ‘80s, but a swift pace, some clever (if accidental) casting and, well, the fact that it’s about killer kids should make it a destination point for any good slasher movie fan at least once. It’s dumb, mindless fun that doesn’t overstay its welcome and has enough memorable moments – whether they’re caused by cleverness or are so ridiculous that they cause eye-rolling – to make for a fine, trashy, bloody birthday present indeed.
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