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Bloody Birthday
(1981/1986)

Director: Ed Hunt
Cast:
Lori Lethin, Melinda Cordell, Julie Brown


When I was young, I used to let my mind wander about certain situations that I would like to be in. Certainly, a lot of those situations were ones where I pictured myself as an adult, since adults to me seemed to have a lot more freedom than your typical child. But I was impatient to become an adult, so I often wondered about what situation I would like to be in as a child. What I think I dreamed most of managing to accomplish when I was still a child was to be a child actor. And when I say "child actor", I don't count those times when an elementary school teacher recruited the entire class to appear in an in-school play that would be performed in front of the other students in the school. My dreams were much higher - to be a child actor in a weekly television series or in motion pictures. Though I didn't know all the facts about being such a child actor while I was in elementary school, what I did learn or know made the profession seemingly irresistible to any kid. For one thing, while you were a child working on a television show or movie, you wouldn't be going to school. While the law did dictate that there would be a tutor on the set to instruct you, it would only be for a very short time every day, leaving the rest of the day for you to have fun. And what fun! As a child actor, you would get the opportunity to pretend to be someone else in front of the camera. Kids love to pretend to be different kinds of people in their private life, so getting a job where you'd be asked to pretend would be irresistible. Especially since you would be paid to pretend to be someone else. And thanks to unions, the money you get would be substantial, much more than the mere allowance that your parents would give you every week.

In other words, as a child actor on a major Hollywood production, you would be treated as an adult in many ways even though you were still a minor under the law. Anyway, the years eventually went by and I was no longer a child, so being a child actor soon became an impossibility. When I first became an adult, I still had dreams of being an actor, though of course my dream had changed to be an adult actor in a Hollywood production. But as more years went by and I learned more about various things concerning Hollywood, I am glad that I didn't try to become an actor - especially a child actor. From what I've learned, there seem to be a lot of pitfalls if you are not only an aspiring actor, but a child actor. There are a lot of adults in the business who are not to be trusted. I have heard many stories about adults in the business who are child molesters, and there are adults who are irresponsible in other ways, such as what John Landis made his child actors do in the movie The Twilight Zone, which lead to a tragedy that I am pretty certain that you know about. (Though Landis was eventually acquitted in a court of law, from what I learned it was because the wrong charges were filed against him.) Another problem that has happened to many former child actors is what happens when they reach adulthood, and they find out that work for them more often than not has dried up for them. They are often unprepared for that possibility, and being out of work and unskilled in any other ability has many times resulted in a hard life happening to them as an adult.

There is another reason why, if I were a parent with a child, I may be reluctant to have my child enter the acting world when he or she was still a child. There is the possibility that my child might be exposed to some tough subject matter on a project. Let me give you an example with a Bloody Birthdaymovie I reviewed in the past, The Paperboy. If you read my review of that movie, you will see that I thought it was a well-crafted exercise. But what I didn't mention was that all through the movie I was wondering about what was going on in the mind of the child actor who was playing the child killer. What did the child actor think about the material before signing on? What was he thinking while acting in the movie? And what was his mind like after the movie was completed? Oh, he was probably fine and treated the experience as a lark - remembering my childhood, I am sure I would have felt the same if I as a kid acted in his role. Still, there's a part of this grown adult that feels a little uneasy when I see a movie where a kid commits vile acts like murder - how do the child actors react to it at the time, and later in life? So you maybe can imagine how I felt when I sat down to watch Bloody Birthday, which has not one, but three child murderers in its story. The movie begins in the small California town of Meadowvale ten years in the past, at a time when a total solar eclipse envelopes the town. While the eclipse is happening, three babies are born in the small town. Almost ten years later, the babies have grown into Curtis (Billy Jayne, Demonwarp), Steven (Andrew Freeman), and Debbie (Elizabeth Hoy, X-Ray). The trio are the best of friends, but no one in the town knows that their bond goes beyond friendship and sharing the same birthday. The total solar eclipse has seriously warped them mentally, and close to their upcoming tenth birthday they start to kill various adults in town. They start with strangers, but soon have their sights set on friends and family members. Two other youths in the town, the teenaged Joyce (Lethin, Return To Horror High) and her younger brother Timmy (K.C. Martel, E.T.), soon find out that the trio ten year-olds are up to no good, but they can't convince anyone in town of the fact. And soon Joyce and Timmy are in the sights of Curtis, Steven, and Debbie...

Despite writing in the previous paragraph about my queasiness about seeing three child actors playing murderers, I have to admit that that reaction of mine wasn't that intense. In fact, I think most people today who sit down to watch Bloody Birthday will have a less outraged reaction than the few people who saw it back in the 1980s. Since then, the news has been filled with countless tales of school shootings and other major crimes done by minors. We've become numb to the idea of children committing major crimes. But while Bloody Birthday may have lost some of its impact over the past few decades, I do think it still packs a considerable punch. For one thing, director and co-writer Ed Hunt (UFO's Are Real) manages to give the murder sequences a big impact. The opening sequence of two lovers in a graveyard getting bumped off may be in theory a tired situation, but Hunt somehow manages to stage it so there are a couple of genuine jolts. Later murders in the movie have even more power. Hunt lingers on the seconds before the actual slayings happen. And while that is going on, more often than not we have a very good idea of what is actually going to happen. This technique doesn't ruin things for us in the audience - what is going to happen more often than not has a real awful edge to it, so we in the audience are saying to ourselves, "Oh no no... these kids aren't really going to do that... are they?" I have to admit there were a few times when I was really squirming in my seat, and I've seen more than my share of horror films. Interestingly, while looking closer at these murder sequences, I realized that Hunt doesn't put the kids in the same shot as the victims at the actual moment of slaying. Had he done so, the murders may have had even more impact. Maybe he felt that would have been too much.

But as they are, the murder sequences do work very well. However, while Hunt's direction is a key reason why they are effective, I think that a lot of credit has to go to most of the child actors who play the psychotic killer children. I say "most", because the child actor who plays the role of Steven ends up doing very little in the movie. He doesn't say that much, and if I recall correctly, he does very little in the way of murder - if he does anything at all in this field, that is. He almost disappears from the movie. Fortunately, the actors playing the two other child murderers manage to make up for this weak character. Elizabeth Hoy as Debbie manages to be very creepy despite her polite and respective facade that manages to fool everyone around her. Her calm demeanor while flashing a so-called friendly smile actually works a lot better than if she had been a ranting and raving lunatic. Looking at her, you really sense something is not right with her character even when she's not committing a murder. However, Billy Jayne as Curtis manages to steal the show from her. Part of the reason is that he gets to do a lot more than his two child co-stars, but mostly it's because he's really good in his role. His constant creepy smirk combined with showing absolutely no fear is genuinely disturbing. It's not just a good child performance - it's a good performance, period. There are a couple of other worthy performances of note to be found in Bloody Birthday. I liked the scenes concerning Timmy and Joyce, the two who eventually realize something is not right with the trio. When the two actors (Lethin and Martel) are paired up in a scene, you can sense a bond despite their age differences, a bond that really convinces you that the two are brother and sister thanks also to some convincing dialogue. It adds humanity to a movie full of depravity.

As for the rest of the cast, some viewers may think they are wasted. While the cast includes Susan Strasberg (Picnic) and the Oscar-winning Josť Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac), their roles are only cameos. A pre-fame Michael Dudikoff (The Shooter) also makes an appearance, but not a very big one. On the other hand, since Bloody Birthday is really a story focused primarily on the three psychotic children as well as the Timmy and Joyce characters, there doesn't seem to be much point adding any other major characters. So I'll give the movie a pass on that aspect of the movie. But are there any real problems to be found in Bloody Birthday? Well, I have to admit that at times I thought the movie was kind of padded out. Though the movie runs only eighty four minutes in length, there's not a lot of evolving story to be found; the movie is almost a collection of vignettes. Also, the movie to a significant degree makes the two sibling protagonists kind of slow in realizing what threat is at hand. And once they do get some idea, they make some really stupid decisions that either prevents the threat from being stopped right there and then, or end up endangering themselves even further. Viewers who are looking for gore and blood will be further disappointed; there's not much of that grisly material on display in the movie. (In compensation, there is some sexual material, including a stand out strip sequence with MTV's Julie Brown.) Still, despite the lack of a strong evolving story, the movie does click along from scene to scene at a fairly brisk clip and never gets dull as a result. And as I made clear earlier, the murder sequences manage to hit home despite lacking that red gooey topping found in most other serial killer movies made in the same era as this movie. Bloody Birthday may not get to the point of being genuinely scary, but it is disturbing enough that even seasoned horror fans will feel extremely uncomfortable at times, and it is definitely an above average example of the seldom used "killer kid" film genre.

(Posted November 11, 2014)

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See also: Daddy's Girl, The Other, The Paperboy

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