Slasher movies are essentially built on repetition of the same basic ingredients: start with some nubile teens, throw in a killer, a dash of gore, perhaps a surprise reveal, rinse and repeat. The slasher entries that stood out from the pack did so because they found a new slant on these elements or perhaps an idea lifted from a different style of horror to add a little spice to the formula. A great example of this technique is Bloody Birthday, a fun flick that crossbreeds the basic slasher film elements with the “killer kid” subgenre of horror to create a distinctly unwholesome variation of the knife-kill trend.
Bloody Birthday begins with a guest star and a freak astronomical occurrence: Jose Ferrer plays out his first appearance in a 2-scene cameo as a doctor who delivers a trio of babies at the same time during a solar eclipse. Ten years later, those babies have grown into three cherubic kids – athletic Steven (Andy Freeman), brainy Curtis (Billy Jacoby) and the sheriff’s daughter, Debbie (Elizabeth Hoy). The neighborhood is preparing a triple-birthday celebration for their upcoming birthdays, not knowing a switch has flipped in the brains of these moppets – and they’ve begun to kill their neighbors.
The kids are deviously clever and sociopathic so they cover their tracks pretty well as their serial killing streak begins. However, they slip up when they antagonize classmate Timmy (K.C. Martel). His turns to his teenage sister , astrology buff Joyce (Lori Lethin), for help and she realizes that the kids may have been born without the ability to feel for others because of the odd solar-eclipse circumstance of their birth. Unfortunately, the murderous trio are wise to the would-be heroes and plot to take them out so they can continue their prepubescent murder streak.
Slasher movies are a generally unwholesome mixture of blood and carnality but Bloody Birthday pushes things into red-alert territory by adding pre-teens into the mix and making them murderers. What would be fairly conventional killings take on new levels of discomfort and seediness when smiling kids right out of Central Casting are doing the deadly deeds. Sure, the astrological plot conceit may be silly and the way the adults fail to catch strains plausibility – but it’s easy to forget these problems when kids are committing cold-blooded murder on screen (in particular, a scene of one kid shooting his teacher carries an added chill in light of today’s school shootings).
The plot also explicitly acknowledges that kids this age have started to get curious about sex, embodied in a comedic yet disturbing way by a scene in which Debbie charges Steven and Curtis a quarter to peek at her sister Beverly (Julie Brown) while she strips and dances to rock music in her room. A similar frisson comes when Curtis sneaks up on a pair of teens in mid-coitus and shoots them down. It plays out like a surrealistic reenactment of a Son Of Sam murder with a little kid standing in for David Berkowitz – and when Curtis pauses to leer at the naked girl before shooting her with a grin, it’ll creep you out in the worst way.
Whether by design or not, the rest of Bloody Birthday reinforces the shock of these elements by placing them in placid, clean-cut surroundings. The script takes place in the kind of squeaky-clean suburb you’ve seen in dozens of kid movies and Stephen Posey’s bright, colorful cinematography gives the proceedings the cheerful look of an after-school special gone horribly wrong. Ed Hunt plays into that psychotic after-school special feel by backgrounding the clueless or helpless adults – and the presence of t.v. regulars like Ferrer and Susan Strasberg (fun as a bitchy teacher) is the icing on this poisonous children’s birthday cake. Melinda Cordell also is worthy of note as Debbie’s mom – she comes unglued in a memorable way as her little girl starts bumping off the rest of the family.
On the latter note, casting agent Judith Holstra deserves a special round of applause for her work on Bloody Birthday. Not only did she find good kid actors – always a challenge – but the film’s cast is rounded out with people who would soon be stars, like Riptide star Joe Penny in a cameo as one of Joyce’s teachers and future American Ninja Michael Dudikoff as Beverly’s boyfriend. Best of all, she got a pre-novelty music/television stardom Julie Brown to supply the obligatory nudity – and the scene where she strips to a sleazy rock tune has endeared itself to celebrity nudity collectors everywhere.
Finally, and most importantly, the actors who play the central kids are great – Martel makes a believable kid-in-danger hero and Lethin, then a t.v. regular, handles her final girl role with a subtle, likeably unforced performance. However, it’s the kiddie killers who rule the film: Hoy does a fantastic job of capturing a particular “popular girl” style of maliciousness and Jacoby takes the precocious kid archetype into homicidal territory (his leering grin makes him the scariest of the murderers). Freeman gets less to do as the jock of the group but he makes the most of his few moments, particularly a fun scene where he mocks Strasberg.
In short, Bloody Birthday remains one of the must-see slashers because it retains the power to disturb the viewer on multiple levels – and it belongs on the shelf of any stalk & slash enthusiast.