Birthday, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/27/05 10:13:22

"Real time. Real strange."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Eugenio Mira's "The Birthday" isn't quite in real time - somewhere along the line, about fifteen minutes get cut out (during the Q&A, the director informed us that the opening text should have said that Norman Forrester was about to have the most bizarre 110 minutes of his life, as opposed to 95). Still, the intent to tell a story in real time is there, and that gives this movie a unique feel, a burst of energy that pulls the audience along, no matter how strange the story gets. And it'll get pretty strange.

Norman Forrester (Corey Feldman) knows he's in over his head as the movie starts. He's a not-terribly sophisticated New Yorker working in a Baltimore pizza place, but his girlfriend Alison Fulton (Erica Prior) is a gorgeous, high-maintenance blonde from a wealthy family. She's invited him along to her father's (and uncle's) birthday party, which is being held in the Fulton family's first hotel. Now closed, the hotel is empty except for the Fultons' tony affair in the main ballroom and the considerably wilder party being held in a second-floor room (one of those guys knows Norman, too, and invites him to drop by when the other one gets boring). Feeling out of place to begin with, Norman is completely thrown for a loop when one of the waiters recruits him to help ferret out who among the partygoers and staff are planning a massive human sacrifice as part of their plans to revive some eldrtich creature and bring about the end of the world.

The film is set in the late November 1987, so it makes a certain kind of sense to cast eighties star Feldman in the lead. His performance is a sort of strange sort of self-doubting Jerry Lewis invocation, all funny-voiced confusion. There are points where one wonders if Feldman is relapsing, or if the character is perhaps supposed to be mentally handicapped. It's a thoroughly goofy performance, but an entertaining one. A neat facet of the film is that even though Feldman's handle on the character doesn't really change a great deal - a guy can only mature and change so much in an hour and a half, even if it is the strangest 95 minutes of his life - but the audience comes to find him more identifiable. He's still pretty much the same schmuck at the end that he is in the beginning, but his stumbling and hesitation has gone from being an impediment to normal behavior to a perfectly reasonable reaction to the insanity he's dealing with.

Because of how writer/director Eugenio Mira shoots his movie, few other actors get the same spotlight as Feldman. Ms. Prior takes a great deal of the spotlight for the first act of the movie, doing a great riff on the spoiled eighties-movie princess. She's slumming by going out with Norman, but isn't actually malicious about it; one gets the impression that she doesn't want to dump him - she can't see herself in the role of the bitch - but would really rather he sort of wandered away. Jack Taylor, who apparently was a big name in European horror movies thirty years ago, plays her father as a kind of benign snob who finds Norman's tuxedo that he bought for his brother's wedding tacky, but also naturally assumes that he owns a restaurant rather than delivering food for one, because he can't imagine being in a situation to have a conversation with someone that far below his station. Craig Stevenson (I think; I really should start taking notes during the credits) is a pip as the spy who has infiltrated the wait staff in order to stop the inevitable slaughter. There's a hilarious sort of hammy desperation in how he latches onto Norman, frantically delivering exposition and setting him on missions before rushing out of the scene.

But, again, these guys are all subordinate to Feldman, who is in practically every scene - I can't immediately recall a scene without him. Mira opts to build his film out of a series of long tracking shots, literally as well as figuratively following him over the course of the evening. There's some downside to that - about half the time Norman spends in an elevator - but the upside is the feeling of constant action and motion. It also puts the audience more directly in Norman's shoes, not just because cuts remind you that there's been editing and post-production, but because there's little chance or perspective to second-guess his thoughts and decisions. It also lets us see the sets from some non-standard perspectives.

And this is one pretty fine-looking movie. The sets aren't elaborate, but they're a spiffy combination of the film's 1980s time period and the hotel's art deco architecture. The lighting is low, but it fits with the mostly-empty hotel. It's a slick, good-looking picture all around, and while there's nothing distinctly Baltimore about it, it's a bit surprising to realize that it was shot in Barcelona with a mostly Spanish cast and crew, much like The Machinist (why Spanish production companies and government programs are making English-language movies is beyond me). There's clearly some good folks working there, though.

The Birthday is a fun little horror-comedy, from its opening titles the the cut-to-song/end credits that finishes it (one of my favorite recent abrupt endings). It probably won't be a triumphant return to the multiplexes for Mr. Feldman, but it'll be a fun little cult movie for those who stumble over it.

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