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Tabula Rasa

Alison's Birthday

Written and directed by Ian Coughlin, 1979

A review by Kyla Ward, 2001

Alison: "Do you believe in ghosts, possessions, all that?"
Pete: "I did a program on it a couple of years back. Some of the things I saw shook me up a bit. And since I'm your basic sort of coward I decided to leave it alone after that."

This is not a film about a plucky young heroine discovering the dreadful secrets of her past. It's more about her loyal, fairly competent boyfriend discovering dreadful secrets while she's unconscious/hypnotised. But the best reason to watch it is the extremely competent evil cult. Theirs is not a far-reaching conspiracy including police and the government. Theirs is a simple and practical set-up based on appearing as respectable suburbanites and telling people what they will believe. After all, the truth is simply too outrageous, and even if Auntie and Uncle do have a scaled-down Stone Henge at the bottom of the garden there must be some rational explanation.

Thought has been put into Alison's Birthday. It is an original screenplay that, although it fails to do much with the actual Australian setting, at least manages to treat it matter-of-factly. The cult and their monoliths are immigrants, seeking sanctuary in a place where witch-burning isn't on the agenda. The plotting is solid and the occult elements treated with the solemnity which is all-important for a film of this type. This is not to say that Alison's Birthday does anything new, rather that all the boxes are ticked.

Unfortunately, after a shock séance opening the pace slows to a crawl. Although the decision to not rely on blood and shock effects deserves respect, such things as suspense and intellectual terror must replace them and there is crippling lack of suspense in this film. I think it is due partially to the early establishment of Alison as totally passive; there is no reason to expect her to do anything, and that she doesn't hardly comes as a surprise. Also contributing is the generally flat direction and uninspired editing. There is a car chase and a fight sequence, both of which fail to work as action, and this would seem to pin-point the overall problem.

There are moments. As implied, the film is set in Sydney and the Gore Hill cemetery is used to advantage. The sequence where Pete is being pursued between the overgrown graves by cultists in black tie is something special; so too is his method of acquiring a consecrated cross. And believe it or not, the monoliths look good; their first appearance, set in a grove of whispering willows, is particularly effective. I noted the State Library has changed remarkably since filming.

The performances, for the most part, are unremarkable, although Bunney Brooke and John Bluthal strike just the right note of suffocating family interest as Auntie and Uncle. John Bluthal is better known for any number of other film and television appearences, including Superman 3. Vincent Ball, the other 'name' in the cast turns in an understated portrayal of the cult's doctor/high priest. Joanne Samuel, who plays Alison, went on to portray the murdered wife in Mad Max, but as said her role here is truncated. The fact that Alison's intuitions of danger are limited to the early parts of the film severely hamper the emotional identification that might otherwise occur -- and emotional journeys are clearly not the forte of the actor portraying Pete.

This film is a sincere effort. Ian Coughlan has since written and directed a number of other works, his most notable genre outing being as the writer of Kadaicha (1988), on which he rejoined producer David Hannay. Hannay went on to produce Out of the Body (1988), The 13th Floor (1988) and Vicious (1988) among many non-genre works. It is a shame that Alison's Birthday, with its good premise and careful plotting, did not come together as something sharper and stronger.

 

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