Bloody Birthday (1981)

The lineage of films borrowing from the killer-children British chiller Village of the Damned has echoed thunderously over the last half-century – from the Euro-grindhouse provocation of Who Can Kill a Child? to the corny folk tale of Children of the Corn to the cosmic Christmas horror subversion of The Children and beyond. If 1986’s Bloody Birthday does anything especially novel with this Evil Children subgenre it’s in the way it retrofits Village of the Damned into the post-Halloween slasher format. If you cut the killer children angle out of the film entirely, this picture would be unmistakable as a cheap-o Halloween knockoff. Its designated bookworm Final Girl archetype walks down suburban streets fending off invitations to party & sin with her promiscuous friends, scenes that look like half-remembered recreations of specific Halloween moments. Her doomed-to-die neighbor friend’s dad is even town sheriff, like in the John Carpenter classic, and the final showdown with the film’s pint-sized killers is a harrowing night of babysitting gone awry. Swapping out the looming presence of Michael Myers with a small cult of toe-headed rascals is a pretty substantial deviation from the Halloween slasher template, however, offering the Village of the Damned formula an interesting new subgenre avenue to explore. It’s an unholy marriage of two horror sensibilities that likely shouldn’t mix, and that explosive combination makes for a wickedly fun time.

Unlike in Village of the Damned, there isn’t much explanation provided as to why the murderous tykes of Bloody Birthday are evil. The three unrelated miscreants are born simultaneously in a small town during an absurdly windy solar eclipse, and their wickedness is waved off with Astrological babblings about cosmic alignments. What’s more important than their origin is the Lawful Evil characterization in their costuming & murder tactics. They dress like shrunken-down Reaganite adults and sidestep the traditional slasher weapon of a glistening kitchen knife for more pedestrian tools of chaos: skateboards, baseball bats, shovels, cars, etc. One of the little tykes even hunts down his elders with a stolen handgun – which would be a disappointing weapon in the hands of a Michael Myers but is genuinely horrifying when operated by a child. It’s unexpected details like that gun that keeps Bloody Birthday exciting even if you’re already over-familiar with the slasher genre at large. It’s not interesting enough for teens to make out in a graveyard in this film; they have to make out in a grave. Not only do the children have an unsettling prurient interest in adult sexuality, peering in on sex & private stripteases; they also fire a bow & arrow through their peephole. After two 2019 releases (Ma & Psycho Granny), this is the third film I’ve seen this year where a killer maniacally scrapbooks about their crimes – a very unsettling hobby for a child. This is a deeply ugly, unwholesome glimpse at Reagan Era suburbia, and the kids are not alright, not at all.

That spiritual ugliness also extends to the film’s look & sound. This is a repugnantly colorless affair, dealing almost exclusively in muddied browns & greys. The sound quality of my blind-buy DVD copy left the dialogue outright indecipherable, prompting us to switch to Severin’s digital restoration currently streaming on Shudder (which was only slightly better, but at least audible). Unlike in most first-wave slashers of its era, the murders in the film actually weigh on the community they terrorize, which mostly manifests in teary-eyed funerals, public meltdowns at kids’ birthday parties, and hospitalized psychiatric retreats to aid recovery. It’s a sense of grief & despair that keeps the mood harshly grotesque & rotten, even when the Evil Children’s wicked deeds stray into over-the-top camp. I personally never tire of the killer-children horror genre and had a lot of fun with this film’s peculiar melding of Village of the Damned tradition with Halloween modernism. It’s an ugly watch in both texture & sentiment, though, one that’s bested as a bygone nasty in its genre only by Who Can Kill a Child?. It works wonderfully well as a genre deviation for both the killer-children thriller and the traditional first-wave slasher, and there are plenty of cartoonishly excessive joys to be found in its intergenerational kills. It’s just also a nasty slice of schlock in its own right, though, so be prepared to squirm between your guffaws.

-Brandon Ledet

Island of the Damned

One of the most underappreciated cul-de-sacs in horror cinema is the 1950s & 60s British thriller that turned expansive premises with global implications into bottled-up, dialogue-heavy teleplays. Sci-fi horror classics like Devil Girl from Mars, The Day of the Triffids, and The Earth Dies Screaming executed big ideas on constricted budgets in excitingly ambitious ways, even if they often amounted to back-and-forth philosophical conversations in parlors & pubs. It’s difficult to imagine so, but our current Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? has strong roots in one of the most iconic examples of this buttoned-up British tradition – the 1964 chiller Village of the Damned. What’s most amazing about that influence is that the calmer, more dialogue-heavy example of the pair is somehow just as disturbing as its ultraviolent descendent. Even working under harsh financial restraints & systemic moral censorship in a more conservative time for horror cinema, Village of the Damned holds its own against the free-to-shock grindhouse nasties that followed in its wake.

It’s not that Village of the Damned was the only killer-children horror film that could or would have influenced Who Can Kill a Child?. From the classier Evil Children artifacts like Rosemary’s Baby & The Bad Seed to schlockier contemporaries like It’s Alive! & Kill Baby Kill, it’s remarkably rich thematic territory that’s been mined countless times before & since. Still, there’s something about the way the concept is handled in Village of the Damned that directly correlates to Who Can Kill a Child?, particularly in the two films’ opening acts. They both begin with the eerie quiet of a vacated city where the adults have been neutralized (in Who Can Kill a Child? because they were massacred, in Village of the Damned because they were gassed by alien invaders). Both films dwell on the mystery of those vacant rural-village settings for as long as possible before revealing that their central antagonists will be murderous children. Those children may have different respective supernatural abilities (the ones of Who Can Kill a Child? are unusually athletic & muscular while the toe-headed cherubs of Village of the Damned are hyper-inteligent), but they share a common penchant for telepathic communication that leaves their adult victims out of the loop. Most importantly, Village of the Damned concludes with its main protagonist (veteran stage actor George Sanders) making the “heroic” decision to kill a classroom full of children to save the planet, which touches on the exact thematic conflict referenced in its unlikely decedent’s title.

There are, of course, plenty of ways that Who Can Kill a Child? mutates & reconfigures the Village of the Damned template instead of merely copying it (lest it suffer the same fate as John Carpenter’s tepid 90s remake). Instead of the killer children being a set number of alien invaders in a small village, they’re instead a growing number of infectious revolutionaries who can recruit more tykes into their adult-massacring cause – making their eventual escape from their island home a global threat. Since the sensibilities of the horror genre in general has changed drastically between the two films – from teleplays to gore fests – Who Can Kill a Child? also translates the earlier film’s “The Birds except with Children” gimmick to more of a hyperviolent George Romero scenario. Surprisingly, though, the most pronounced difference between the two works is their respective relationships with the military. In Village of the Damned, the British military is a force for patriotic good against an invading space alien Other – who trigger post-War trauma over entire communities being gassed & destroyed. Who Can Kill a Child? is much, much tougher on military activity, framing its entire children’s-revenge-on-adults scenario as retribution for the way it’s always children who suffer most for adults’ war crimes. That makes this gory Spanish mutation of the buttoned-up British original the exact right kind of cinematic descendent – the kind that’s in active conversation with its predecessors instead of merely copying them.

Who Can Kill a Child? is less restrained than Village of the Damned in terms of its politics & its violence, but both films are on equal footing in terms of bone-deep chills—which speaks to the power of the teleplay-style writing & acting of 1960s British horror. Village of the Damned is nowhere near the flashiest nor the most audacious entry in the Evil Children subgenre, but it is an incredibly effective one that plays just as hauntingly today as it did a half century ago. It’s like being locked in a deep freezer for 77minutes of pure panic, so it makes sense that it’d have a wide-reaching influence on films that don’t either share its sense of restraint nor its politics.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? , check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Tra-la-logs vs. Hoonies: Finding Gooby in The Pit

When initially discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1981 Canuxploitation curio The Pit, Boomer lamented the loss of its screenplay’s original subtext about childhood struggles with Autism. In its conceptual phases, The Pit was intended to be a thoughtful insight into the mind of a child on the spectrum. Jamie’s misunderstanding of personal boundaries and fantastic obsessions with his “talking” teddy bear and the Tra-la-logs (troglodytes) that live in a pit in the nearby woods were originally intended to be empathetic teaching points about the internal processes of a child on the spectrum struggling with the emotional & sexual discomforts of early puberty. Realizing that kind of subtle, thoughtful child psychology drama wouldn’t make nearly as much money as a bonkers horror film with the same basic premise, producers pushed for a different story altogether. In The Pit as a final product, the woods-dwelling troglodytes & telepathic teddy bear are demonstrated to be real, and really dangerous. Jamie himself makes a leap from a misunderstood, bullied child with boundary issues to a full-on perverted menace who even out-creeps the flesh-eating Tra-la-logs as the film’s most hideous monster. I understand some of Boomer’s mixed feelings on this shift from empathetic child psychology drama to exploitative horror cheapie, but ultimately, I gotta say the producers made the right call (at least in terms of The Pit’s entertainment value). I’ve already seen a movie with The Pit’s budgetary & creative means attempt to recapture the imaginations & frustrations of a child on the spectrum through their relationship with a talking teddy bear. It was 2009’s Gooby, a film that’s only notable for its unintended terror & laughable absurdity (thanks largely to being covered on the “bad movie” podcast How Did This Get Made?); It’s the same fate I believe The Pit would have suffered if it had attempted sincere melodrama about Jamie’s troubled psyche.

Once you consider them as a pair, the parallels between Gooby & The Pit are unmistakable. A G-rated (presumably Christian-targeted) children’s film, Gooby follows a small child struggling to adjust to his family’s move into a new home, not his burgeoning sexuality, but the ways his anxieties manifest are very similar to Jamie’s. Instead of fearing Tra-la-logs, the pint-sized protagonist of Gooby fears “Hoonies”: two-headed CGI bird-beasts that only he can see. He also processes the emotional stress of his changing life and the threat of the Hoonies through his relationship with an anthropomorphic teddy bear. In The Pit, the teddy bear is a telepathic communicator who encourages Jamie to explore his sexuality and enact his revenge on perceived enemies in increasingly unsavory ways. In Gooby, the titular teddy bear transforms into a six-foot tall imaginary friend (voiced by Robbie Coltrane, of Hagrid fame) who provides his corresponding troubled child with emotional support in a time when he’s isolated from the humans in his life. Gooby is, in theory, the wholesome version of The Pit, with all the icky sex & violence replaced with tender, empathetic insight into the mental processes of an outsider child on the spectrum struggling to adapt to a new reality and to relate to the other humans in his social circle. Yet, Gooby is deeply disturbing in its own, unintended way both because of its lighthearted, sanitized exploration of deeply troubling emotional issues and because Gooby himself is a goddamn nightmare to look at. By leaning into its genre film potential and making its monstrous threats “real,” The Pit transcends so-bad-it’s good mockery to become something undeniably captivating & unnerving. Gooby, by contrast, risks the child psychology sincerity of The Pit’s original form and falls flat on its face because of its shortcomings in budget, dialogue, and character design. By trying to make the imaginary teddy bear friend of The Pit’s basic dynamic a lovable goofball, Gooby only succeeded in creating a new kind of horror, one that plays as an embarrassing mistake instead of a successful attempt at small-budget genre filmmaking. Both films are equally fascinating & unnerving, but only one’s effect feels successful in its intent – the one that asks to be treated as a horror film to begin with.

There are plenty of successful, well-considered children’s films about processing mental & emotional anxiety through imaginary devices – Paperhouse, MirriorMask, The Lady in White, A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants, to name a few we’ve covered here. Gooby & The Pit attempt a very specific, shared angle on that formula in their teddy bear vs. imaginary monsters (whether they be Hoonies or Tra-la-logs) interpretation of childhood Autism conflicts. The difference is that Gooby fully commits to the “It was all in their head” metaphor originally intended but abandoned by The Pit, to disastrous results. Whether a limitation in talent or budget, Gooby never had a chance to be anything but an absurd, unnerving embarrassment headlined by a nightmarish teddy bear goon. The producers of The Pit likely saw their own project heading in that direction when they decided to bail from the original child psychology melodrama script to pursue a more marketable cheapo horror genre payoff. The results are largely the same. The Pit & Gooby are both deeply uncomfortable curios that reach a very peculiar level of terror you might not expect given how goofy they appear from the outside. The difference is that The Pit comes out looking ingenious for framing that effect as its intent, whereas Gooby persists only as a how-did-this-get-made mockery, an abomination & an embarrassment. They’re basically the same movie, but only The Pit was self-aware enough to realize its own horrific effect.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its big-budget equivalent, The Gate (1987).

-Brandon Ledet