Separated from the mainland by a three-mile stretch of causeway that’s impassable at high tide, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the English coast of Northumberland, provides an irresistible setting for a horror film. Wandering into some sicko sitch is bad enough, but what if you’re compelled to stick it out for twelve hours until the tide turns? Lindisfarne provides the captive atmosphere of Unhappy Birthday, a psychological sectarian thriller that draws inspiration from the original ‘Wicker Man (1973), itself set on the fictional island of Summerisle. The tidal island in Unhappy Birthday, Mark Harriott and Mike Matthews’ 2011 film, is renamed Amen—which would have been a better name for the film, with its unambiguous religious associations and dread sense of closure.
The film’s location is special, therefore, as is the way in which the surrounding landscape is filmed, often with artful time-lapse photography and effects. Its soundtrack, which rings out with creepy and discordant sound effects, is also very effective. Less so is the storyline, which—and you can skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid spoilers—can best be summed up by its 28 IMDb plot keywords: shower, male frontal nudity, gay sex, island, birthday, tide, pubic hair, male pubic hair, male nudity, kiss, boyfriend girlfriend relationship, pregnancy, threesome, birthday cake, blowing out candle, long lost sister, sister sister relationship, bisexual, scarecrow, religion, rural setting, gay, gay kiss, driving, car, england, sex, picture of jesus. In fact, Unhappy Birthday is a little too much like the aforementioned Anthony Shaffer-penned paganfest in the script department—odd villagers, cultish conspiracy, shocking denouement, all to a playful score. It’s been done before, and it’s been done better.
Mark and Mike’s Lindisfarne love-in stars Christina De Vallee, Jonathan Keane, Jill Riddiford, and David Paisley. The only claim to fame among the four of them is Paisley’s same-sex kiss on the British TV hospital drama Casualty, which drew the ire of 114 viewers, according to the BBC. Prudish low-budget horror buffs should be advised that there’s more than mere mano-a-mano kissing—and a picture of Jesus—in the erotically-charged Unhappy Birthday.
(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth