BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1981) Blu-ray
Director: Ed Hunt
Severin Films

Severin Films gifts Ed Hunt's 1981 sickie BLOODY BIRTHDAY and its fans with a Blu-ray release.

In 1971, three children are born during a total eclipse in which the sun and the moon both blocked Saturn. Ten years later, as their joint birthday approaches, Debbie (Elizabeth Hoy, X-RAY), Steven (Andy Freeman, BEYOND WITCH MOUNTAIN), and Curtis (Billy Jacoby, SUPERSTITION) put their jump ropes and baseball bats to deadly use (Debbie also charges Curtis and Steven to peek in on her sister Beverly [Julie Brown, CLUELESS] changing clothes). Their Midwestern town is rocked by a series of murders, first that of a teenage couple necking in an open grave at the local cemetery, followed by Debbie’s own father, the Sheriff (Bert Kramer, EARTHQUAKE). The authorities assume that the Sheriff tripped on Debbie’s skateboard, but his death means Curtis has a new toy to play with: his gun. When strict schoolteacher Miss Davis (Susan Strasberg, THE MANITOU) does not grant their request to excuse all of the students from school for their birthday party, Curtis shoots her. The sweet trio is above suspicion to all but Timmy (K.C. Martel, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR) and his big sister Joyce (Lori Lethin, THE PREY) who both become targets of the killer tykes.

Like HALLOWEEN, BLOODY BIRTHDAY was shot in Southern California standing in for the Midwest and has a similar suburban feel (albeit on the extremely cheap), but the cinematography of Stephen Posey (SAVAGE STREETS) is largely unatmospheric, lacking Dean Cundey’s swooping Panaglide shots and contrasts of amber and deep blue lighting. INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN composer Arlon Obler’s score apes Henry Manfredini’s FRIDAY THE 13TH with its stabbing horns and shrieking strings (minus the vocal effects), but there is so little suspense until the finale. Perhaps the film’s most memorable element is comedienne Brown’s five minute striptease, since it is not a particularly “bloody” birthday (the arrow-to-the-eye gag was executed with more aplomb – and in 3D – in the third FRIDAY THE 13TH installment). The most likely shocking aspect of the film is that Hoy, Jacoby, and Freeman were all very close in age to their murderous characters. All three look appropriately soulless while wielding weapons – including handguns, which would be a big no-no these days – during the murder scenes, but it is hard to believe anyone would find the characters played by Hoy and Jacoby – who would both figure into the opening flashback of the slasher X-RAY/HOSPITAL MASSACRE – to be sweet and innocent (their smirking disingenuousness is more unsettling than their carnage).

Lethin is a likable “final girl,” if one can get over her serving as the mouthpiece for the film’s somewhat laughable astrological explanation for the kids’ motivations (apparently being born during an eclipse means you have no conscience). Like the two female victims of HALLOWEEN, Brown’s victim-to-be is sexually active – and shown topless or in revealing sweaters – without being brainless unlike the disposable brainless bimbos of later slasher films. Strasberg is clearly just picking up a paycheck here, as is Jose Ferrer who plays the doctor who delivered the three tykes of terror. A young Michael Dudikoff (AMERICAN NINJA) appears as Beverly’s boyfriend (and inexplicably does not get killed off), JAKE AND THE FATMAN’s Joe Penny has a single scene as Joyce’s college advisor, and Cyril O’Reilly (DANCE OF THE DAMNED) plays her boyfriend.

VCI Home Video’s 2003 DVD featured a single-layer, progressive, anamorphic transfer from a 35mm print with some almost impenetrable night scenes in addition to the usual print wear. Severin's 2011 progressive, anamorphic 1.78:1 DVD – which erroneously stated a 1.66:1 aspect ratio on the back cover – was derived from an HD transfer from the negative and was a visual improvement over the old transfer (despite some edge enhancement). The night scenes are improved as much as they could be since they were simply underlit). Severin's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 Blu-ray appears to be derived from the same master. At the time, I felt that brighter transfer looked less moody than the darker VCI one, but now I think that the added contrast of the projection print VCI used just gave a sense of depth to the original cinematography's flat lighting (outside of the underlit night shots). The VCI disc’s mono sound was slightly hissy with some clipping in the music while Severin’s audio is cleaner. Both tracks are fairly flat apart from some gunshots and the bassy presence of the muffled rock song – the lyrics of which are a bit more discernable on the Blu-ray's uncompressed LPCM 2.0 track – that underscores Brown’s striptease.

While the VCI disc featured an interview with producer Max Rosenberg (formerly of Amicus) – who served as uncredited executive producer with Daniel H. Blatt (THE HOWLING) – who had some disparaging things to say about director Ed Hunt (Anchor Bay’s UK DVD featured the same Rosenberg interview as well as a reportedly unimpressive 5.1 remix), Severin’s Blu-ray reproduces the extras from their own DVD edition. First up is a lengthy telephone interview with director Hunt (51:10) in which he discusses his schooling at UCLA's film program and the difficulty of finding his first film job (crewing low budget films shot on weekends because of the equipment rates for those periods), his first features – PLEASURE PALACE and DIARY OF A SINNER in Canada – and his interest in UFOs (leading to a discussion of the making of STARSHIP INVASIONS and the later documentary UFOs ARE REAL). Of BLOODY BIRTHDAY, he talks about working with producer Max Rosenberg – to whom he attributes the concept from which he wrote the script – the film's wide distribution on home video, his subsequent study of the horror movie genre and the script he is working on (possibly HALLOWEEN HELL which is in post-production) before launching into a more enthusiastic discussion of THE BRAIN. Then there's a pleasant and humorous interview with lead actress Lethin (9:50) in which she mentions her other slasher role in THE PREY (although not RETURN TO HORROR HIGH), being in acting classes with Joe Penny, the lack of child safety during the stunt scenes, her bewildering attraction to Ed Hunt, and her on-set friendships with Martel and Hoy. She also expresses puzzlement about Strasberg’s appearance in the film (and asks jokingly, “How do you method act when you’re dying?”).

Also carried over from the Severin DVD is “A Brief History of Slasher Films” (15:11) – also featured on Severin's concurrent DVD of John Lamond's more conventional Aussie slasher NIGHTMARES – an entertaining clip-fest of trailers excerpts and poster art for slashers domestic and foreign (PIECES, anyone). The overview by Adam Rockoff is very general and will not offer much of anything new to the seasoned slasher viewer, but it will point newbies in some interesting directions (and may point others to one or two missed titles). The VCI and Severin DVDs lacked the film's theatrical trailer, but it has been included here (1:59) – actually the original theatrical trailer repurposed for the video market (presumably from VCI) – as well as a teaser trailer (1:09) in compressed-to-hell early YouTube quality as a conspicuously-placed Easter egg. The disc also includes trailers for HORROR EXPRESS, BLOODY MOON, NIGHTMARES and THE BABY. (Eric Cotenas)