No Emotion: The Killer Kids of BLOODY BIRTHDAY

In honor of this week's GOODNIGHT MOMMY release, Sam Zimmerman discusses his favorite killer kid joint.

In movies, child death is taboo, and so are deadly children. Just as many prefer their entertainment to abstain from the graphic mowing down of tiny, pure bodies, so would they not like to confront the idea that kids are as calculated and capable as adult murderous sociopaths. Sorry, lame-o’s, but there’s a whole subgenre of killer kid films you’re missing out on, a handful of them terrific. The weight of child murder and murderous children often imbues these films with an extreme nature. There are grim, unsettling titles using the touchy subject for societal or political intent: this month’s unreal TFN (total fucking nightmare) Goodnight Mommy; Tom Shankland’s underappreciated British creeper, The Children; Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador’s killer kid classic, Who Can Kill A Child?

And then there’s flippant shlock like Bloody Birthday, and damn, is it refreshing.

A 1981 film seemingly cashing in on both killer kids and the golden age of slashers, Bloody Birthday is remarkable for its disinterest in anything larger than a trio of nice suburban smilers offing adults and teenagers alike. Where Goodnight Mommy displays the frightening heights of mistrust in childhood, and Who Can Kill A Child? is concerned that a world constantly at war will spread violence to the youth, Bloody Birthday is a different kind of TFN: total fucking nonsense.

Sporting a title surely imagined before a single word was typed, Bloody Birthday follows three small Southern Californians, born on the same day. In the same hospital. At the same time. During an eclipse. Ten years later, living on the same street, the three have grown into killers, smiling their way through school, home, parties and vicious homicide. You see, that eclipse blocked Saturn, which controls personality. There’s something missing from Debbie, Curtis and Steven: emotion. It’s arguably missing from this film, as well.

Director Ed Hunt often brings that blank quality to Bloody Birthday, simply observing the horrible actions of the three without verve or style. He certainly isn’t saddled with societal conscience. It’s part of the movie’s dopey brilliance. By taking on the qualities of these kids, Bloody Birthday sort of lets you off the hook. There’s no being appalled at the youth of the nation. There’s no questioning religion or free will. There’s no looking inward, outward, cityward or suburbanward. There’s just goofy delight that these three monsters can run amok undetected so long.

That fact that they do is another facet of Bloody Birthday’s accidental genius. Ripping aesthetic and musical cues from the likes of Halloween (suburban strolls, sheriff dad), Friday the 13th and Psycho (scores inspired by), as well as a penchant for going after teenagers in compromising positions (like the back of a van, or making out in an open grave), the film was clearly aiming for the booming slasher audience, which would soon take on the killer’s POV anyway. The opening chunk of Bloody Birthday finds a town in quiet panic that there’s a psycho on the loose. Hunt can’t keep the secret from viewers -- that’s too much fun -- but by making the killers kids, the spree can chug along forever. Simply no one in 1981 California will suspect them. The cast doesn’t even have to bother with a whodunit!

Where then does the personality and silly enjoyability of Bloody Birthday hail from? Julie Brown’s fuscia high waisted’s, sure, but the killer kids are the stars of the show. One of their first victims is both the sheriff and immediate family. Bold. Andrew Freeman’s Steven is a wonderful snotty shit, while Elizabeth Hoy is Debbie, the most deceptively sweet and manipulative. She charges boys to peer through a hole in the closet as her sister undresses, and then shoots an arrow through when her sister dares to look back. No one is as baller as Curtis, however. With a stylish Harrington, Travolta strut and revolver by his side, Curtis is up to no good at all times. He locks kids in junkyard refrigerators, threatens birthday cake with ant poison and shoots his teacher through his coat like some John Wick motherfucker; his blank stare always creased with a smirk.

There’s further weirdness in the film’s astrology bent and its teens. When discussing the deaths of their friends, Julie Brown is astonished they were murdered in a graveyard. “We go there all the time!” Then there’s Debbie’s mother, Mrs. Brody, who loses both her husband and eldest daughter. Actress Melinda Cordell allows real grief to seep into this wacky film, breaking down at both the kids’ joint birthday bash and (expectedly) her child’s funeral. At one point, she simply heads off to an asylum. Perhaps her strangest note is at film’s end, but we’ll get there.

If Bloody Birthday fizzles, it’s in its reluctance to then turn and give its terrifying trio what for. Final Girl Joyce Russel (an astrology devotee played by Lori Lethin) and her little brother Timmy (K.C. Martel) never unleash necessary hell on Curtis, Debbie or Steven. In fact, they simply treat them like the kids they are, tying Curtis up and locking Steven in a steamer trunk. Like it’s a time-out for attempted murder.

The final satisfaction is Debbie’s escape. Curtis* and Steven are taken into custody, their true nature revealed. So is Debbie’s, but nonsensically (like much of this movie) her mother doesn’t care. At a roadside motel, Mrs. Brody and Debbie are on the run, and the former seems to understand just what the latter does, and did (including killing their family). “From now, I’m going to be your little girl,” Debbie says, before the camera reveals a trucker she murdered just moments prior.

She did say, “From now on.”

*Don’t worry, Curtis and Debbie would later reunite in Canon slasher X-Ray.

This was originally published in the September issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine in honor of this week's release of Goodnight Mommy. See Goodnight Mommy at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!