“Does anybody know what the word ‘murder’ means?”
Horror cinema has a long and storied history of evil kids, going back at least as far as The Bad Seed (1956) and Village of the Damned (1960). Ed Hunt’s Bloody Birthday, which was made in 1981 but didn’t see wide release in the States until ’86, owes a bit to both of those films, and to lots of others, besides.
Conceived during the early-’80s heyday of low-rent slasher flicks, Bloody Birthday mixes and matches the evil child and slasher subgenres with reckless abandon, creating a finished product that’s likely to satisfy fans of either.
At the third-annual CarpenterFest at the Screenland Armour theater here in Kansas City, I recently had the pleasure of watching John Carpenter’s 1976 classic Assault on Precinct 13 on the big screen. There is a particular scene involving an ice cream truck in that film—those who have seen it will know which one I mean—that still packs a visceral punch all these years later. The audience I saw it with gasped and exclaimed, even when they had been warned that it was coming.
Nothing in Bloody Birthday hits quite that hard anymore. These days, we are much farther removed from the restrictive Hays Code than they were even in 1981, and we have all been inured to plenty of shock tactics from filmmakers in the years since.
It takes more than seeing ten-year-old kids murdering adults with sadistic and premeditated glee to get a rise out of us, even if that glee has seldom felt more genuine than it does in the faces of the pint-sized perpetrators of Bloody Birthday.
The film starts out forebodingly enough; three children are born at the exact same time during a solar eclipse. We see the outside of the hospital, where an ominous wind blows, and we watch a time-lapse of the eclipse itself as we hear the sounds of the deliveries.
Then we jump ahead ten years (not quite to the day; the movie needs a little time to ramp up to its birthday sequence) as we enter standard slasher movie territory: a young couple is fooling around in a cemetery when they get knocked off by an unseen assailant. Or assailants, as the case may be.
While the film plays coy briefly, it doesn’t take long until the audience is fully clued in that the three kids are the culprits, which is given away in the promotional materials anyway.
From there, much of the movie’s suspense is derived from the fact that the people around them don’t even consider the possibility that these tykes might be murderers—or when they do, they are quickly dispatched or sadistically gaslighted.
What is perhaps most surprising—and unusual for a slasher film of the era—is that very little time is spent exploring why these kids are committing their nefarious deeds. Sometimes they kill to cover up previous murders, while other times they are crimes of convenience, but, ultimately, the children simply “share a terrible compulsion to kill,” as the film’s trailer would have it.
Our final girl, played by Lori Lethin of The Day After and Return to Horror High, is into astrology, and she says that the kids were born during a planetary conjunction when both the sun and moon were blocking Saturn, which should lead to something “missing” from their personalities.
“Saturn controls your emotions and the way that you treat people,” she tells her younger brother, a classmate of the murderous pre-teens, later wondering if what is missing is their “conscience.”
Of course, even if we buy it, that explanation only goes so far. Not having a conscience might make it easy to kill, and would explain it if the kids only killed those who wronged them, or killed when they had something to gain. But these kids obviously kill for the thrill of it, and even continue to do so when it puts them at risk of exposure. There is clearly something more going on beneath the hood here, but that something more is chillingly never explored.
Earlier I mentioned John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, but there’s another early Carpenter flick that casts its long shadow across Bloody Birthday. While the children in Bloody Birthday may bear little resemblance to the stoic Shape of Carpenter’s Halloween, there’s a stark similarity in their unmotivated evil.
Michael Myers was a little younger than these kids when he committed the murder that serves as his origin story, but it still seems like it could easily have been another set piece in their reign of terror, a parallel driven home by the occasional familiarity of Bloody Birthday’s surroundings, which are shot in Pasadena, the same streets that stood in for Haddonfield in Carpenter’s slasher classic.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.