"Unhappy Birthday" should attract niche VOD sales, though less adventurous genre fans might bridle at the pic's slow pace and gay content.

If suspense fiction has taught us anything, it’s that visiting tidal islands inescapable during high-water hours is never, ever good for one’s health. This is duly discovered by the protagonists of “Unhappy Birthday,” a trio of mainlanders whose trip to a remote Northumberland locale proves unhealthy indeed. First mainstream feature for writing-directing duo Mark Harriott and Mike Matthews, veterans of gay erotica titles and nonfiction TV respectively, is stronger on atmosphere than narrative punch. Its horror trappings should attract niche VOD sales, though less adventurous genre fans might bridle at the pic’s slow pace and gay content.

Garishly garbed birthday girl Sadie (Christina De Vallee), her boyfriend, Rick (David Paisley), and their friend Jonny (Jonathan Keane) are raucous working-class urbanites on a weekend jaunt. Their destination is a secret, however, at least to Sadie (who’s got a secret of her own to spring — she’s newly pregnant). Turns out the boys have been contacted by a woman who believes she’s Sadie’s long-lost sister.

Upon meeting dowdy, odd Christian spinster Corinne (Jill Riddiford), Sadie is more creeped out than thrilled, upset by the tale of their runaway “outcast” mother bringing one baby on foot to the mainland but drowning in the rising tide before she could retrieve the other. Of course, the same natural phenomenon occurs just as the protags reach the (sometimes) isle of Amen, effectively cutting them off from retreat. Settling in at Corinne’s cottage for the night, Rick and Jonny sneak off for a passionate round of rather explicit more-than-best-mates physicality. Meanwhile, Sadie begins experiencing hallucinations, and the next morning is suddenly, disturbingly in synch with Corinne’s insistence that Amen is “the perfect place to raise a child.”

It turns out this largely sealed-off society has its own weird religious fanaticism, a problem with fertility and reason to lure outsiders on false pretenses. Story recalls older Brit horror pics (notably “The Wicker Man”), an echo winked at by the presence of ’70s Brit sexploitation/horror favorite David McGillivray as a sinister pub owner. Dislocative atmosphere, in which the island landscape itself becomes a menacing force, is reminiscent of ’70s Stateside cult movies like “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” and “Messiah of Evil.”

But pic’s impressive visual and sonic textures don’t translate into actual thrills, as “Unhappy Birthday” holds attention without ever working up the scares or grotesquerie we anticipate. End result is more promising than satisfying, both as a genre piece and as a calling card for Harriott and Matthews’ future endeavors. Perfs are decent given the script’s limitations, resourceful production packaging better. Tidal isle of Lindisfarne hasn’t been used as a feature film location since Roman Polanski’s “Cul-de-Sac” (1966).

Unhappy Birthday

U.K.

Production

An Unhappy Birthday Prods. production. (International sales: Unhappy Birthday Prods., London.) Produced by Nic Speranza, Mark Harriott, Mike Matthews. Directed, written by Mark Harriott, Mike Matthews.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-DigiBeta), Hammond; editor, Tony Graynoth; music, Lin Sangster; art director, Kerry Platts; sound, Sangster; sound designers, Conal Reid, Sangster. Reviewed at Frameline (World Cinema), San Francisco, June 21, 2011. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

David Paisley, Christina De Vallee, Jill Riddiford, Jonathan Keane, David McGillivray.

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