Monday, June 15, 2009

Bloody Birthday (1980): or, Death Wears Garanimals

A few days ago I reviewed a killer kids movie that (purposefully) left the origins of the kids' murderous natures unexplained. For some reviewers this was a refreshing lack of spoonfeeding, but for me it neglected an opportunity to give the proceedings added depth and meaning, either literal or metaphorical. It's been said again and again that horror films are perfect vehicles for symbolically addressing deep-rooted cultural fears--about science run amok, the dangers of the unrestrained id, or the terrors of an unchecked Communist menace--and it's not for nothin'. While I'm not necessarily advocating a Diary of the Dead-level Baseball Bat of Significance-style thrashing, I think it *is* nice when a filmmaker at least gives us a hat-tip to something bigger than the monsters-meet-characters-and-turn-them-to-hamburger raison d'etre.

And it doesn't take much. Case in point, today's killer kids movie from 1980, Ed Hunt's Bloody Birthday. Three kids are born in the same town within minutes of one another during a lunar eclipse. As a result of the malefactory alignment of planets at the hour of their birth, they are born without a sense of compassion or conscience. With their tenth birthday drawing near, this birth defect begins to manifest in increasingly bloody ways. A commentary on human nature reflected in the perversion of childish innocence? A warning about the dangers of lax parenting? A testimony to the importance of astrology in our day-to-day lives? The possibilities are unlimitless!

The wild death scenes, copious nekkidity, and summarily MAD plot developments are just icing on a delicious, poisoned cake.

Don't go 'round tonight

We open at a hospital in Meadowvale, California, on June 9, 1970. A slumming and somewhat confused-looking José Ferrer arrives for work (he's "The Doctor," as the opening credits have already informed us) to find that not one, not five, but THREE of his patients are getting ready to drop slick, steaming piles of joy in the maternity ward. "Well, you can forget about watching that eclipse!" he tells the nurse on duty, and they duck inside. Luckily *we* don't have to forget about it, as we get to enjoy time-lapse stock footage of the celestial event under a soundtrack of baby-squeals and Ferrer announcing, "It's a boy! It's a girl! It's a boy!" It's actually kind of soothing and disturbing at the same time, like Koyaanisqatsi without all the chanting and garbage.

An onscreen timestamp next informs us we've jumped nearly 10 years into the future to June 1, 1980, still in Meadowvale. A teenaged couple stop in the local graveyard to make out like rabid minx, but after allowing her gentleman caller to get to 3rd base up against a marble cross, the girl suddenly gets shy and wants to find a place out of the open. Erection is the mother of Invention, so the boy quickly finds a suitable make-out spot: a freshly dug open grave! Proving her GGG-ness, the girl happily hops into the corpse-hole and they git awn widdit, injecting the film's first dose of boobulin. When they hear someone moving around six feet up, the boy stands to see what (the fuck) is going on, and quickly catches three shovel-smacks to the face! The spade has barely stopped ringing before the screaming girl finds a garrotte around her neck and is lifted up the earthen walls, giving new meaning to the phrase "sexual hangups." She soon expires, another few shovel blows do for her beau, and the unseen killer(s) start filling the grave with loose dirt. SCENE.

"No! Please! I can't die in this shirt!"

Next we're introduced to fresh-faced high school senior Joyce Russel (Lori Lethin), who writes the astrology column for the local weekly and serves as a teacher's aide at the elementary school in her spare time. With a boyfriend away at college and a suave married editor who seems to have more than her deadlines on his mind, Joyce is obviously our Jamie Lee stand-in here. An early scene with her strolling through the streets of a suspiciously Haddonfield-like Meadowvale removes all doubt. She does know how to rock the man-shirt and bolo-tie, though, so bonus points there.

She arrives late to the elementary, where police chief James Brody (Bert Kramer) is questioning the kids about the recent graveyard murder. It seems a broken jump-rope was found at the scene, but none of the kids cops to having lost one. Joyce gets a little suspicious of her brother Timmy (K.C. Martel), who came home late the night of the murder, but it doesn't take long before knowing glances from soon-to-be 10-year-olds Debbie Brody (Elizabeth Hoy), Curtis Taylor (Billy Jacoby), and Steven Seton (Andy Freeman) clue us in to the real culprits. Stern-to-a-fault schoolmarm Miss Davis (Susan Strasberg, on her way down the career slope that would lead in a couple of years to her turn in Sweet 16) takes a few minutes to scold the kids pointlessly and shame Joyce for being late.

After class the Eclipse Kids come up to ask whether homework can be suspended on Monday, as that's the day of their joint birthday party to which the whole town is invited. Miss Davis quickly puts the ixnay on that noise. "Homework is more important than a party! And just because you all have the same b-day doesn't mean that you're special!" Angel-faced Debbie gives her sweetest smile and nod, but it's clear from her significant looks to her two male enforcers and some overbearing ominous TV music from composer Arlon Ober that Ms. Tingle is going on The List. If I were a betting man, I wouldn't lay odds on Strasberg making it to the end credits.

"We're cooking up some fava beans just for you, ma'am."

We soon learn just how surface Debbie's sweet-and-innocent looks are, as that night at her place she charges Curtis and Steven 25-cents a minute to look through a peephole in her closet at older sister Beverly (future MTV v-jay and novelty songster Julie Brown) as she gets dressed! Years before proving that Earth Girls are Easy, Brown spends a good three minutes proving Real Boobs are Good Boobs, dancing topless in front of her mirror with a feather boa and a Coke bottle (like you do) for the benefit of the prepubescent boys and the post-pubescent audience. She even treats the future Beavis and Buttheads of the world to some FULL DORSAL NUDITY before settling on an outfit, for which a child of the 80s like me can only stand and applaud. Well, applaud, anyway.

When Bev goes out with Joyce to discuss the ins and outs of her relationship with her editor ("You've got a mind like an X-rated soap opera!" Joyce laughs), the kids decide there's no reason to wait for their birthday to get bloody. Setting up a skateboard on the back steps, Debbie calls her father Sheriff Brody out of the house, hoping to take him out Tom-and-Jerry style. When he steps around the skateboard it appears he's dodged a bullet; unforunately he doesn't dodge Steven's home-run swing, as the boy steps out from behind a bush and cracks him on the skull with a Louisville Slugger! He's OUTTA here! The children then arrange the Sheriff's body so that it looks like an accident, but are surprised by Timmy walking by. Though he doesn't tumble to what they're doing, little Debbie's narrowed eyes let us know The List just got one name longer.

The next day The Unholy Three lure Timmy into a game of hide-and-seek at the local junkyard, and Curtis scares the rest of the players off with a realistic revolver ("It's a replica!" he foreshadows) before tricking Timmy into hiding in a freezer and then locking him in to suffocate. There are some very effectively tense scenes of the young boy, buried alive, banging on the doors from inside and slowly getting shorter and shorter of breath as his air runs out. Luckily he carries a pen light and a Swiss Army Knife with him, however, and is able to unscrew the door hasp and escape in a nick of time. Joyce doesn't believe his accounting of events, however, not even when he confesses he'd spent the evening of the previous murder feeding Debbie quarter after quarter for a look at Bev's bodacious ta-tas. Joyce finds this invasion of privacy and burgeoning voyeurism incredibly funny, and when she tells Bev later, her friend also laughs it off and doesn't even bother to cover the peephole--a move chock full of sisterly awesomeness but unfortunately one she'll come to regret.

"Tell you what--just run a tab."

A movie like this could live or die on the believability of its pint-sized villains, and this is one area in which Bloody Birthday succeeds like few others. Tow-headed tough Andy Freeman is given little to do as the silent-but-deadly Steven, but he does convey a kind of dangerous childish petulance in between kill scenes. The real heavy here is Billy Jacoby as Curtis, a playfully remorseless psychopath with a talent for electronics and a Dirty-Harryish love of handguns. (He even gets to parody DeNiro in Taxi Driver late in the movie, striking poses in front of his bedroom mirror with his weapon of choice.) Astute readers will be interested to know that Billy is the younger brother of Scott Jacoby, the wall-dwelling weirdo of the previously reviewed TV terror Bad Ronald. But the real ace in the hole here is Elizabeth Hoy as Debbie Brody, the ringleader with the sweet face and an absolutely unquenchable thirst for blood and death. Director Hunt does a great job of making the kids seem simultaneously childlike and murderous, precociously cruel in the way bright kids who realize there are no consequences to their actions could believably be.

The rest of the movie follows our trio of terror as they take out a few more locals, baffling the remaining police despite Joyce and Timmy's growing suspicions. A couple of standout scenes include the birthday party, where Hunt generates a lot of suspense over a possibly-poisoned birthday cake, and a junkyard chase scene where an eerily masked Steven nearly runs Joyce down among the wreckage. More nekkidity is provided by a van-rockin' couple making an ill-fated stop in front of the Russel residence, and the blood flows freely from Curtis's gunplay, Debbie giving her sister an arrow to the eye, and a tense babysitting assignment gone awry to tie everything up.

"Go ahead--make my play-date."

Lori Lethin as Joyce does a good job here as the confused but ultimately strong heroine, left to protect her brother while their parents vacation somewhere else for the entire two weeks of the running time. It's through her interest in astrology we learn the reasons behind our killer's spree, and her decision to skip college because what she really wants to do is become a journalist provided a chuckle. While her acting is more Facts of Life than Halloween, she does manage to make you care about her character and hope she doesn't get killed.

The script is pretty tight and moves along at a good speed, and though the TV-music score occasionally seems overly dramatic, there are a few good passages with creepy music-box like music that set the tone well. Hunt does a good job ratcheting up the tension, and though some would fault him for not going all Class of 1984 with the final confrontation, the flick does provide an interesting and believable coda with Debbie's twice-bereaved and obviously shell-shocked mother holding on to her one remaining child despite her rather hard-to-reconcile behavioral idiosyncrasies. The post-climax stinger is one that sent me out smiling and seemed earned.

In short, I found Bloody Birthday an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half, and one of the better killer kids movies it's been my pleasure to watch. It keeps the kids in focus without skimping on exploitation staples like nudity and death, and it's to be applauded for that. Never boring and occasionally genuinely suspenseful, Bloody Birthday earns its 2.5 thumb assessment. If you're in the mood for a trip to a more innocent, bloodier time, give this one a spin.

Bloody Bonus! More images from Bloody Birthday:

Bloody Bolo

"See me after class, Vicar."

Swing for the Fences, Kid

"Just attach the electrodes and press *this* button, Gramps, and zap! No more E.D.!"

Dark Night of the Scarecrow: Tarantino Version

"Let me show you something that weird Meyers kid taught me at recess."


Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, there are three ways to go about this explaining business. You can try to scarify folks with the "there is no why" approach, but that does seem like an excuse for lack of invention a lot of the time. You can offer an explanation. Or you can offer the same explanations everyone else in Hollywood and environs offers for deviant phenomena. But that's boring. The astrological theorizing of Bloody Birthday seems like the admirable middle way. The key is not trying to explain too much, such as why the whole world doesn't erupt in murder on the birthday, more than three people on earth having been born, presumably, on the original auspicious occasion. That sort of question was probably meant for a sequel to answer. But maybe that conjunction of spheres was meant for our three tykes only, just like the star over Bethlehem. Think about that!

Tower Farm said...

Oh, I have so wanted to see this movie forever. I mean, come on...the teaming of Susan Strasberg and Julie Brown is just too good to be true. Strasberg's career trajectory is really a wonder to behold.

Thanks to the screen caps here, I am going to order it online immediately!


Pablo said...

Hi, my name is Pablo! I'm from Argentine. I heard in some place that Quentin Tarantino said this movie is the best one in the history of cinema. Can you believe it?
The blog is great!!

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