Sunday, 4 May 2014

Unhappy Birthday

Directors: Mark Harriott, Mike Matthews
Writers: Mark Harriott, Mike Matthews
Producers: Mark Harriott, Mike Matthews, Nic Speranza
Cast: David Paisley, Jonathan Keane, Christina De Vallee, Jill Riddiford
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener (Peccadillo Pictures)
Watch now - see end of review for Distrify link

Unhappy Birthday comes to us billed as ‘the gay Wicker Man’ and that’s not an unreasonable concept if one had to sum the film up in four words. It’s not a Darklands-style quasi-remake but it is set among an isolated, heavily religious island community.

And instead of one devoutly Christian copper we have a trio of thirty-somethings on a weekend away: Sadie (Christina De Vallee, from off that marmite advert!) wears bright-coloured leggings and large, plastic ear-rings; her boyfriend Rick (David Paisley: Casualty/Holby City) is a little more conservative; and their gay friend Jonny (Jonathan Keane, former senior programmer of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) is a bit more boisterous. What is noticeable is that all three are reasonably intelligent, considerate people - the sort of folk you would be happy to meet and talk with. This means we care about them and what happens to them. You don’t need me to tell you that far too many horror films make their protagonists dumb, vain, arrogant 21-year-olds whom we are happy to see killed off. Bravo to Unhappy Birthday for presenting us with rounded, likeable, believable characters.

The tiny island of Amen lies just off the Northeast coast of England and is briefly accessible once a day via a causeway that appears at low tide. Rick is taking Sadie there for her birthday weekend with Jonny along in tow but they arrive too late to make the crossing and spend the night at a nearby B&B.

While Sadie, who has recurrent nightmares about drowning, tries to sleep, the two boys are downstairs, unable to resist each other. It’s not clear (at this point in the story) whether Sadie is aware that her bisexual boyfriend is fucking their pal and doesn’t mind, or is aware but choosing not to say anything, or isn’t aware. Anyway, the point is that if a tastefully shot but fairly explicit (frankly quite erotic) scene of two men shagging each other puts you off your breakfast, then you’ll have to miss out on a really good horror film. Come on, it’s 2011. It’s a modern world. Ask yourself: if it was exactly the same scene with a man and a woman, or two women, would you be bothered?

Well then.

One secret that Rick has kept from Sadie up until they cross the next morning is that he hasn’t chosen this spot at random. Sadie was abandoned as a child and Rick believes he has found her family. He has been in communication with a lady called Corinne who is, all indications suggest, Sadie’s long-lost sister.

Amen turns out to be a creepy, curious community where most people wear identical anoraks and live in fear of contamination from the mainland. Nevertheless, the islanders obviously have some limited contact with the mainland because, although self-sufficient in food, they must get their fuel (and indeed their cars and tractors) from somewhere. Life on Amen is simple; rural but not primitive. The place looks like it hasn’t changed since before the war. But there’s no animosity. Quite the reverse. Everyone waves in a friendly but vacant manner at the three bemused visitors.

Corinne (Jill Riddiford: Book of Blood) lives alone, welcoming the trio into her house. She seems simplistic, not simple. Sadie on the other hand is a wreck and goes through a whole range of emotions, De Vallee giving an excellent performance of a character dealing with an overload of complex and conflicting experiences in quick succession. At times Sadie wants to leave, at others she is more accepting. Gradually she learns about the childhood she can’t remember in this insular community, while the muddy boys strip off in the barn and wash each other.

At the same time, Corinne learns something about her little sister: the as-yet unannounced news that Sadie and Rick are expecting a baby. Or at least, Sadie is.

Gradually, Sadie comes under Corinne’s spell as their hostess keeps her separate where possible from the fellas who are sent down the pub. There they discover that the local tipple is mead, that money is not used on the island, that the locals aren’t necessarily as friendly as they had come to believe - and that the landlord is 1970s horror screenwriter David McGillivray!

To go into too much detail would be to spoil what is, frankly, one of the best British horror films I have seen this year. Writer-directors Mark Harriott and Mike Matthews do a wonderful job of slowly turning Sadie from a vivacious polka-dot towngirl into a restrained, calm village woman who finds herself warming to the simple Amen life and coming round to Corinne’s view that the island would be a wonderful place to raise a child. At the same time, Rick and Jonny are coming to the very opposite conclusion.

There’s a wonderful ambiguity about Corinne (helped by Riddiford’s superbly creepy performance). Is she scheming and manipulative, or is she really as plain and simple as she seems? What does she want? What does she know? What is she not telling? Is her power over Sadie some sort of magic, or simple persuasion, or carefully manipulative psychology, or just a warmth and openness missing from so much of today’s society?

The growing unease of the second act lets loose a third act of genuine horror, not as a sudden switch but rather as a steady, inexorably increasing intensity and paranoia which eventually tips over a line. The three mainlanders start to realise that something is up, but they are clearer about the need to get away than what precisely they are getting away from. And of course they are hampered by the fact that the causeway won’t be accessible for several hours yet.

The film's climax is a juddering sequence of horrific revelations and resolutions that combines imagination with careful construction. After sitting through the disappointing, overhyped Kill List a few days earlier, it was such a pleasure to be reminded what a well-crafted horror story is really like. Not that everything is wrapped up neatly, but the questions raised - such as ‘Is Corinne really Sadie’s sister?’ and ‘How much contact does Amen really have with the mainland?’ - are ones that merit discussion and contemplation, not just random WTF inconsistencies.

Worthy of particular praise is the sexual angle. It would have been very easy for the islanders to have seen the openly gay Jonny as a demon. Let’s not forget, one of Britain’s own island communities, the Isle of Man, only legalised homosexuality in 1992. These are simple, God-fearing, Christian folk (we never see a church on the island but we must assume there is one) who believe that sex outside marriage is an evil sin and there is certainly no room in their world for filthy sodomites.

But that’s not the tack that Matthews and Harriott’s script takes. Corinne is shocked by profanity and snack foods more than by Jonny’s attitude and behaviour (which possibly she doesn’t even really recognise or understand). Another possibility would have been for this film to be one where the characters’ sexuality is entirely incidental to the plot, and while that is a laudable principle it’s also an easy way out. As is a simple gender switch, of the sort that says instead of topless chicks let’s have some shirtless beefcake and drool over that instead (what might be termed the DeCoteau technique).

But no, what is impressive is that the sex and sexuality of each of our three protagonists is intrinsic to the plot. Not so much directly but more in the way that the three relate to each other: characters are defined by relationships, as I believe I may have observed in the past.

There is Sadie’s relationship with Rick, plus a secret between her and Jonny, and of course the boys’ own dark passion. This is a three-sided triangle (rarer than you might think in cinema!) and each side, each angle changes over time as each individual discovers more about themself, their friends and the situation in which they all find themselves. The character development here is masterful. I’ve praised the girls already so let me add that Paisley and Keane are also superb in their respective roles.

While Unhappy Birthday sits proudly within the subsubgenre of the queer British horror film (cf. The Wolves of Kromer and, arguably, Vampire Diary) the horror itself arises not from the sex or the sexuality (or indeed, the sexiness) but from that more traditional penetration angst of the townie thrust into the rural world. Rick, Jonny and Sadie are out of their depth, unable to rationalise the Amen community. Should they mock? Should they pity? Should they be afraid? Or should they learn to embrace the simple life and free themselves from the shackles of modern city living?

In this respect, Unhappy Birthday is a fine example of a British Horror Revival film that manages to be current and contemporary while harking back to an older tradition of homegrown horror pictures. These are modern people with modern lives facing horrors outside their understanding.

Incredibly, the film was shot in just a single week (in early 2010), making use of Harriott’s sister’s guest-house when the location suddenly became available. The causeway is genuine - it’s the one at Lindisfarne - and time-lapse photography really brings home how quickly the land can become sea. At least, I hope it’s time-lapse!

Cinematographer Mark Hammond has previously worked on Top Gear and Bang Goes the Theory (and was one of at least four DPs on Martin Gooch’s absolutely-cannot-wait-to-see-it feature Death). Editor Tony Graynoth also has extensive television experience while composer Lin Sangster was a member of popular beat combos Kit, Send No Flowers and Bad Anorak 404 as well as scoring a FilmFour jingle and a Warburton’s bread ad! Between them, these three create an image and a soundtrack which totally belie the film’s undoubtedly paltry budget. There’s no credit for production designer but Kerry Platts (the scarf designer?) was art director.

A gem waiting to be discovered, Unhappy Birthday is a marvelous little film that knows precisely what it wants to do and achieves it with real skill. Original where it needs to be, yet fully aware of its heritage, defiantly indie and all the better for it. When you start to wonder why you sit through all these movies of varying quality, along comes a picture like this which makes it all worthwhile.

And finally, what of the two main creative forces behind this film? Mike Matthews is also a telly man. He has been shooting stuff for the Beeb and Channel 4 for 13 years now, amassing over 100 hours of credits. Once you know that he has directed both Nigella and Gok Wan, what more need be said? On the other hand, much of Mark Harriott’s output is definitely not suitable for family viewing, certainly not something called Life in Bras for which he recently won a SHAFTA award! After art directing oddball Anglo-Austrian sci-fi thing Dandy Dust, Harriott became Amory Peart, pornographer, and ejaculated a succession of quite extraordinary indie films, both straight and queer, featuring everything from men with no hair (the skinhead sex of Straight Acting) to men with far too much (the hirsute cuddle-cushions of Lick Daddy Suck Bear). Some of his stuff is 'TV' work but definitely not in the sense that you might find it listed in Radio Times...

In 2008 Harriott/Peart even ventured into the fringes of the horror genre with Secret Diary of a She Male. Although you won’t find this listed in most Jack the Ripper reference works, it does feature a sequence in which the ghosts of the Ripper’s victims get together to discover and enjoy a mutual asset which, curiously, the Victorian police reports glossed over and failed to mention!

(And coming soon: hardcore sci-fi action with... The Bionic Milf!)

Following a limited theatrical run in Edinburgh and Greenwich, Unhappy Birthday was released on UK DVD by Peccadillo Pictures, the specialist gay label which also brought us Vampire Diary, Krabat and the Legend of the Satanic Mill and (premiering in Cardiff the same week I reviewed this) British bloodsucker feature Vampires: Brighter in Darkness.

MJS rating: A-

Review originally posted 6th October 2011 [Update: Peccadillo re-released the film in March 2017 as Amen Island - MJS]

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