Amid this year’s folk horror revival, propelled by Kier-la Janisse’s new documentary on the genre, Alison’s Birthday stands out as one of the rarest films to see a revival and overdue restoration — which will screen digitally this afternoon and tonight at the Brattle.
Made for Australian television in 1979, Alison’s Birthday is a rather straightforward pagan drama about a young girl, Alison (Joanne Samuel, best known for Mad Max) whose adoptive parents are revealed to be Celtic cultists raising her to be a vessel for an immortal spirit that hops from human body to human body every several decades. The ritual must be completed on her 19th birthday, but when she befriends an inquisitive young man (Lou Brown) he threatens to reveal the con and ruin the ceremony.
The final directorial work of Ian Coughlan, who had primarily worked on soap operas and would continue to work as a screenwriter until his death in 2001, Alison’s Birthday was shot on 16mm and at times proved to be overly ambitious for the tight constraints of a television production. According to Australian film resource Oz Movies, the film was given a limited theatrical run before finally premiering on Australian TV in 1981, and shortly thereafter became another line item in the international ’80s VHS boom. Alison’s Birthday has only been released on DVD once — in a Region 4 double pack with the romantic drama Solo — but since its premiere has largely only been seen outside Oceania on second hand cassettes and bootlegs.
However, it’s been critics like Janisse and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas who have worked to revive Alison’s Birthday and place it in the legacy of the folk horror genre and the Satanic Panic scare. Writing in the collection Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (edited by Janisse), Heller-Nicholas notes the movie’s almost pitch perfect positioning of a Satanic threat emerging from the cities and suburbia that was fueling a religious fervor among white middle classes in the U.S. and the U.K. in the 1980s, and would later sweep over Australia in the early ’90s. Indeed, Alison’s Birthday shows the pagans among us, preying on the innocent to awaken ancient deities and the perpetrators — much like the infamous McMartin preschool case — are ‘fine’ and ‘upstanding’ members of the community.
The film itself opens with a banger of a seance, in which a 16-year-old Alison and her friends use a Ouija board to connect with the spirit of her birth father, who tries to warn her of the impending danger coming three years later. It’s a vignette as intense and vivid as similar scenes from The Changeling or The Legend of Hell House. But as the film jumps ahead in time, days before Alison’s fateful 19th birthday, the pacing slows to that of an ABC special as we’re delivered exposition and teased along by the sense that something’s not quite right. But it’s the film’s final act that delivers, both on high tension action as Lou Brown takes center stage working to subvert the cultists and prevent the ritual, and the psychotronic elements of the black magic make themselves seen.
The opportunity to see Alison’s Birthday theatrically is a true rarity, but if you miss it tonight the film is finally coming to Blu Ray this December as part of Severin Films’ Folk Horror box set All The Haunts Be Ours. Having only seen a spotty VHS of the film myself, the chance to watch Alison’s Birthday in 2K clarity is a special occasion.
dir. Ian Coughlan
Screens Saturday, 10/30, 4:oo & 9:30 @ Brattle
Part of the continuing series: Folk Horror Beyond the Wicker Man
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