Monday, March 7, 2022

Alison, It's Your Birthday

Dear readers and lovers of all things horror, I should hope that by this point in our odd internet relationship, I don't have to still pitch the benefits of subscribing to Shudder. It remains such a wonderful destination for the genre, both new and old, hosting titles we've all long loved and even better, those we've never heard of. 

Their biggest recent release (literally; it's 3 1/2 hours long) is Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. It's a must-watch for any genre fan, shining thoughtful discussion on both well-known titles like The Wicker Man and a whole batch of more obscure work previously unavailable on general home media. 

But it gets better! Dozens of titles referenced in the doc are also now streaming on Shudder, which makes perfect sense (though try telling that to other streaming sites doing similar work). I'll warn you that I've definitely fallen down the grassy hole of the genre, so expect the next several weeks to include a LOT of forest haunts. 

First up: 1981's Alison's Birthday, a folk horror so folksy it has its own tiny Stonehenge. 

Quick Plot: A trio of teenagers are having fun with their homemade ouija board until things turn dark. Chrissy is possessed by a spirit from the other side with an important message for young Alison: don't return home on your 19th birthday, because Mirne is after you.

Alison doesn't know a Mirne, and before the night is over, she'll no longer know a Chrissy. An unusual breeze blows a bookcase on her friend, killing her instantly.

Three years later, Alison has moved away from her suburban hometown, eking out a living at a record store while she dates the charming Peter. Aunt Jenny, who raised her after her parents died in a car accident, calls Alison begging her to come home for her fated 19th birthday. Sure, it's not an exciting age, but Uncle Dean is dying, and Jenny has big party plans for their last family celebration.

Peter and Alison head home, and while Jenny and Dean are nice enough, Alison quickly remembers the many reasons she moved far away. There's something off about the place where she grew up. Maybe it's the non-suspicious replica of Stonehenge hiding in the backyard or the Minnie Castevet-ish tonics Aunt Jenny is always pushing down Alison's throat. Perhaps it's the bizarre nightmares now haunting Alison, visions of ritualistic sacrifice causing her to toss and turn as her 102-year-old great grandmother wheels herself into Alison's bedroom to watch her sleep. 

Yes, you really can't ever go home again.

Written and directed by Ian Coughlan, Alison's Birthday is a genuine treat. A sad, haunting little taste of something unnerving, but a satisfying bite nonetheless. It somehow feels both oddly familiar and completely fresh. The story is smartly small, focusing so finely on poor Alison's fate, wisely fleshing out Peter just enough so that we're equally invested in his mission to save her. 

There are serious Hereditary vibes circling the themes, and I'd be shocked if a VHS rental of this movie didn't imprint on a young Ari Aster. I'm also fairly shocked this movie hasn't been discussed more over the years. Maybe it was its lack of easy availability or small scale: ultimately, this is a very intimate story about one young woman's fate. Let's face it: that type of material doesn't always connect with a general fanbase who would rather see women in a very different light.  

Make no mistake: there is a lot of pain in Alison's Birthday, and a mounting sense of sad, inescapable dread. The ending packs an incredibly powerful punch that I won't forget. 

This is good stuff.

High Points
One of the key factors in making Alison's Birthday work is how the characters actually address the far-fetched supernatural possibilities at play. Alison is logical but dubious, and Peter, as he becomes deeper and deeper involved in solving the mystery, enlists the aid of his professional psychic pal. She in turn doesn't speak about these cults as if they're an ear to the underworld, but is very clear that Peter needs to know WHY and HOW they think the way they do if he has any hope of saving his girlfriend. It's an important distinction that helps ground the chaos

Low Points
It's the era, and that's that, but some of Alison's Birthday's score occasionally dates itself with such an electronic action-packed sound that doesn't quite align with the old-world eeriness of its folk horror roots

Lessons Learned (The Oz Edition)
Lyle was not a popular surname in 1980s Australia

All Australian babies are born with blue eyes

Pagan rituals down under call for the finest formalwear

I adored Alison's Birthday, and would be shocked if you didn't too. Go get it.  


  1. Thanks for pointing this one out!
    I think I'd seen it around in previous years and never checked it because... who knows, maybe that box cover isn't a real eye grabber.
    Anyway, just watched it... and mostly enjoyed it. I was certainly rooting for Peter (that car!) against the cult, because the cultists seemed like a pretty bland bunch. So I was a bit 'meh' at the first ending... but the final coda ramped up the horror nicely (nastily) and I came away quite satisfied.
    1981 was the time of the 'Satanic Panic' in the U.S... with stories of cultists raising children for sacrifice, I wonder of that was part of the inspiration?

    1. Makes perfect sense! Have you watched Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched yet? It brings up so many ideas surrounding folk horror and is absolutely fascinating at unearthing BUNDLES of films I never knew about.

      And yes, THAT CAR!

  2. Last year I cut the cord from cable and got a Roku stick, and then I subscribed to AMC+ so that I could keep up with the Walking Dead and its spinoffs. As a result, I've been able to enjoy all that Shudder has to offer as well, including this movie and the Woodlands Dark doc. I liked how extensive the documentary was, such as including international films that I was unaware of. Getting back to "Allison", it was fun to see Joanne Samuel in another genre film because I had only ever seen her as Jessie in "Mad Max". It was also a film that had been on my radar for a long time, as I'd read a synopsis about it in one of my horror reference books, so I'm glad that I finally was able to check it out! And wow, what an ending...poor Alison :( Have you watched the In Search of Darkness documentaries yet? I really enjoyed them, and I've heard there's a third one coming out too, which I'm looking forward to seeing. Next up: the new Scream movie is streaming on Paramount+, and I can't wait to watch it this weekend!

    1. I JUST learned about Scream on Paramount, so I'm hoping to dive in this weekend. I can't believe I've managed to avoid spoilers this long! Haven't watched the In Search of Darkness episodes as I didn't hear much positive about it. But I trust your judgement so I might give them a go!