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The Birthday (2004)

A shaggy dog comedy which transforms into a Lovecraftian horror picture, this would play better if star Corey Feldman didn't work so hard on his tiresome Jerry Lewis imitation. Norman Forrester (Feldman), a busboy insecure in his relationship with the uppercrust Alison (Erica Prior), has to accompany her to a birthday celebration in honour of her domineering father (Jack Taylor), who owns a chain of hotels – including the luxurious but somehow sinister Baltimore edifice (with art direction that evokes The Shining, David Lynch and Barton Fink) where the bash is held. Fumbling and awkward in his inherited tuxedo, Norman is put in one uncomfortable situation after another by Alison – who at different times might be pregnant, have breast cancer or on the point of dumping him – and her equally odd family. Upstairs, a group of students who know Norman are throwing their own exclusively male, homoerotic frat boy party to celebrate the conclusion of their participation in a series of drug tests. It turns out that the white-coated waiters, who have tattoos on the backs of their necks, are in a cult which hopes to bring about the rebirth of an evil God on this night (it's 1987) and have selected the hotel as the site of the coming, which will involve someone seeming to die of a heart attack, rising as a possessed zombie and entering into unholy communion with other prepared sacrifices. Norman has the backstory explained to him by an undercover hero who could also be a complete madman, then circumstances conspire to make him the only man who can stop the arrival of the evil God.

The problem is that for an hour or so, the film consists of interesting, creepy, subtle material as disturbing elements escalate but keeps breaking off while Feldman overdoes his nebbish act and makes the whole thing hard to sit still for, no matter how impressive the widescreen visuals. Only in the climax does the rest of the film amp up to match Feldman, and the movie starts working. Most 'Lovecraftian' films use rubber tentacle effects to render his indescribable horrors cinematic, but this takes a different, more effective route. Lighting and aural effects genuinely convey a sense of changing physical laws and the big manifestation is a disturbing, lo-tech conglomerate creature which consists of bloodied, tuxedoed possessed contortionists wound together into a many-limbed human knot. It has obvious antecedents in art-horror cinema, but also such footnotes as Society and In the Mouth of Madness. Director-writer Eugenio Mira tries very hard, and with a different leading man this might have had long-term cult potential. As it is, most audiences give up before it gets good.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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