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Horror as Folk: Coming of Age in Alison’s Birthday (1981)

We’re back in the All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set from Severin for the movie that shares a disc with Celia, another Australian horror flick, filmed and set in New South Wales in 1979. While it’s hanging out on a disc with Celia, Alison’s Birthday feels very different from the last couple of films that we’ve discussed in this column. It’s a much more traditional horror movie, borrowing from such venerable (and otherwise) sources as Rosemary’s Baby and Touch of Satan. Its protagonist is also quite a bit older.

Courtesy Severin

We first meet Alison (Joanne Samuel, Mad Max) when she is just sixteen years old, as an intertitle informs us. She and two of her school friends are having a séance with a homemade Ouija board (Scrabble tiles and a glass, another setup borrowed from a previous film, this time 1944’s The Uninvited). Of course, things take a turn for the spooky as Alison’s (deceased, we can assume and later learn) father speaks through the mouth of one of her friends, warning her to stay away from “them” on her nineteenth birthday.

Though familiar, the séance sequence opening is actually quite effective. There’s nice rising tension, and a good performance/voice work from the possessed friend (Margie McCrae), and the whole thing ends on a suitably tragic denouement.

We then jump ahead a few years to the days leading up to Alison’s fateful nineteenth birthday. Though she has attempted to put it out of her mind, a call from her aunt sets the wheels in motion. It seems that her aunt and uncle – who raised her after her parents died in a car accident – have planned a big family gathering for her birthday, and it would mean a lot to them if she came back home for it, especially since her uncle is in poor health.

Of course, Alison can’t say no, despite her misgivings, and she returns home to her kindly but possibly sinister aunt and uncle, and the secret miniature replica of Stonehenge that they keep in an overgrown lot behind a stone wall in their backyard. Y’see, as we learn over the course of the picture, Alison’s aunt and uncle – who, it turns out, aren’t actually her aunt and uncle at all – are part of a druidic cult that worships a demon called Mirne, “Mistress of the Great Old Ones,” who, as near as I can tell, was created whole cloth for the film.

The reason they’re so keen on having Alison back for her nineteenth birthday is because they’ve been raising her since infancy, specifically for this day, when she will become the new host of their diabolical deity. It has to be Alison, because she was born at a propitious time, and it has to be on her nineteenth birthday because that’s the ritual number associated with Mirne. And the only one who can stop it is Alison’s boyfriend and his ridiculous jalopy.

Courtesy Severin

Like I said, all very familiar stuff. If you’ve seen any number of other Satanic panic movies of the 1970s, you’ve basically also seen Alison’s Birthday but, as with the séance at the beginning, familiar doesn’t mean inadequate, and most everything in the film is quite well done. What’s more, the folk horror bona fides are all here, from the stone circle to the druidic cult to the mumbo jumbo.

Helping to lend a little weight to everything is the film’s eponymous fixation on Alison’s nineteenth birthday – though it is, of course, far from the only such film to focus on a young woman’s coming of age. And despite the picture’s claim that the date is due to Mirne’s ritual number, coming of age is really what it’s all about.

Pretty much every culture throughout history has put a certain emphasis on rituals and traditions around a young person’s transition to adulthood. Sometimes, that transition is centered on a specific age, as it is here, and other times it’s based more on a point at which you undertake certain accomplishments – or, in the case of various changes that come with puberty, when your body undertakes them for you.

Even in our ostensibly enlightened modern era, we still celebrate countless rituals related to coming of age. In America, these are tied to legalities. When you’re old enough to drive a car, you often get one. When you’re old enough to legally vote, have sex, and get married, we make a big deal of it (and it’s also around the time you graduate from high school and are sent off to college or wherever you go next). When you’re twenty-one and can legally drink, most folks go on quite a bender, even though they’ve likely already been drinking illegally for years by then.

Courtesy Severin

This focus on coming of age is picked up and echoed in various other places throughout Alison’s Birthday, besides the significance of the birthday itself. Alison returns home to a room that was just as she left it when she moved out, which is still the room of a young girl, suggesting that Alison was likely at a boarding school in the earlier sequence, which is also implied by the uniforms.

When Alison is defending her aunt and uncle to her suspicious boyfriend, she suggests that they just want to keep pretending that she’s a child, something that’s hard to do with the guy she’s sleeping with hanging around. Indeed, even the film’s stinger ending suggests the tension that surrounds growing up.

While ultimately, it turns out that the aunt and uncle are, in fact, the cultists that her boyfriend suspects, and they imprison her in a hundred-and-four-year-old body in order to give her body to Mirne, there’s also a moment where Alison is no longer the woman that her boyfriend knew. In this case, that’s literal. It’s because she is Mirne now. But it’s not hard to see in it the often painful changes that we all go through as we transform from who we were as children to who we will ultimately be as adults – changes we often think we’ve completed, partly due to those very coming of age rituals, long before we actually have.