One sure way for a horror movie to shock the public is to make the main villain a child, or a group of children. Some of the more frightening movies in horror history have employed this technique, ranging from a single kid in The Bad Seed and The Good Son to entire tribes in Children of the Damned and Children of the Corn. In 1981, a trio of horrible kids wreaked havoc on their hometown in Bloody Birthday.
Bloody Birthday begins in 1970, when three children are born on the same day during a solar eclipse. When Curtis Taylor (Cujo’s Billy Jacoby), Steven Seton (Andy Freeman from Beyond Witch Mountain), and Debbie Brody (Hospital Massacre’s Elizabeth Hoy) turn ten, a string of horrible murders begins to plague their hometown. When Sheriff Brody (Bert Kramer, the voice of Computron in the animated “Transformers” T.V. show), who is also Debbie’s father, finds a broken jump rope at the scene of one of the killings, he asks his daughter’s elementary school class for help in identifying the culprit. Debbie, Curtis and Steven kill the policeman, skillfully covering the deed up and making it look like a freak accident. One of the kids’ classmates, Timmy Russel (K.C. Martel from E.T. and The Amityville Horror) starts to suspect the trio of the crimes, and when his sister, Joyce (Return to Horror High’s Lori Lethin) notices that the three share a birthday, she does a little astrological research. Joyce discovers that, on the day the three were born, Saturn was blocked by the sun and the moon and, since Saturn controls the feeling of remorse, the children were born without consciences. Now that Joyce believes that the kids are the killers, she and Timmy have to save themselves and the town from the terrible tots.
Beating the similarly titled but much more well-known Happy Birthday to Me to theaters by a couple of weeks, Bloody Birthday often gets lumped in with the golden age of slasher movies. It’s unfortunate that the film gets lost in the shuffle because, in reality, Bloody Birthday is much more than a splatter flick; it’s a pretty serious psychological thriller. Written by Ed Hunt and Barry Pearson (who also co-wrote Plague and Alien Warrior) and directed by Hunt, the film gives the viewer an unthinkable scenario – the most innocent and naïve of characters, a trio of ten year old children, are the killers, and Bloody Birthday makes no apologies for it.
There are a lot of familiar faces in the cast of Bloody Birthday. In addition to K.C. Martel and Billy Jacoby, both of whom would go on to have decent television careers on “Growing Pains” and “Silver Spoons,” respectively, future pop culture star Julie Brown (form MTV’s “Just Say Julie”) is also in the film, playing Debbie’s older sister, Beverly. José Ferrer (best known for playing Cyrano de Bergerac all over T.V. in the fifties) and Susan Strasberg (Golden Globe winner for Picnic) also have roles. For such an unappreciated film, Bloody Birthday boasts a fairly accomplished cast.
Bloody Birthday has a misleading title. Sure, there is a joint-birthday party for the children in the film, and it is a pivotal scene, but the movie is about much more than birthdays. In addition, it’s not very bloody; the kids kill with whatever they can get their hands on, so there’s more strangling with jump ropes, bludgeoning with shovels, and good old fashioned shooting with dad’s pistol than stabbing and slashing with knives. Add in the obvious confusion with Happy Birthday to Me, it seems that the producers of Bloody Birthday should have rethought the name.
One thing that Bloody Birthday does share with its slasher counterparts is the look. It was shot by cinematographer Stephen Posey, who also worked on classics like The Slumber Party Massacre and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, and the film has the appearance of a golden age slasher, seeming to draw influence from daylight horror films like Halloween and Alone in the Dark. Some of the scariest scenes take place out in the open, in the middle of the day, in a junkyard. In one, Curtis locks Timmy in an abandoned file cabinet and leaves him there, and in another the kids try to run Joyce down with an old car (it takes all three of them to drive it, and the one steering wears a creepy Trick ‘r Treat type mask). Posey’s photography and the spooky score by Arlon Ober (Child’s Play) manage to convey fear in broad daylight, and Bloody Birthday is a different kind of scary because of it.
In horror movies, perhaps nothing is more frightening than a killer child; it’s difficult to imagine that someone so pure and innocent can harvest such evil and hatred. When it’s done effectively, the results can be horrifying, and Bloody Birthday does it well.