From the ‘70s on calendar horror was all the rage with the slasher crowd; Black Christmas begat Halloween which gave us Friday the 13th and on and on, a red ‘X’ flooding the dates throughout the year. Of course we can’t forget birthdays either, so after Happy Birthday to Me we were offered Sweet Sixteen (1983), an interesting, sometimes icky film that leans closer to murder mystery than it does slasher.
Released in mid September by Century International, Sweet Sixteen got lost amid the masked mutilators and supernatural shenanigans of the day, but that shouldn’t deter any ardent fan of the era and those seeking a horror film grounded in story more than exploitation – depending on how it’s viewed.
The story of Sweet Sixteen has an air of Choose Your Own Adventure about it depending on which version you watch – the theatrical cut or the director’s cut. In the former, the film starts off with a long shower scene of our titular subject, Melissa (Aleisa Shirley – Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone); in the latter it starts off with a dream the real heroine of the piece, Marci (Dana Kimmell – Friday the 13th: Part III), is having about a mystery book she’s reading. It then follows her as she has breakfast with her dad, local sheriff Dan Burke (Bo Hopkins – Mutant), and her brother Hank (Steve Antin – The Last American Virgin). But let’s unfurl the theatrical for the full uncomfortable effect:
After Melissa is done with her shower, the film cuts to the local tavern and the arrival of residential redneck Billy (Don Stroud – The Amityville Horror), who gets into a fight with local Native American Jason Longshadow (Don Shanks – Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers). We see Melissa talking to Hank and another boy outside the bar; she takes off with the other one in his truck towards the woods for some R & R. Naturally, the make out session is cut short by a gloved interloper.
As Melissa continues to affect the males sniffing around her like bloodhounds on a tear, the bodies continue to fall. All roads lead to Melissa’s birthday party, as sheriff Dan deals with what’s left of the suspects while Marci tries to solve the case herself. Will everyone make it to cut the cake?
So if you start off the film with Marci’s dream, you follow a plucky heroine as she tries to solve a mystery in her small town; start off with Melissa, and you’re wiping grime off your clothes all the way to the end. Certainly the former takes the high(er) road while the latter is completely in line with the mores of the screen at the time; even though Shirley was 20 when she made Sweet Sixteen, you’re still supposed to think she’s 15.
Having watched both versions, I can vouch that having it start with the ersatz Nancy Drew plays much better; some nudity from Melissa pops up later, but it doesn’t seem to be the mission statement from director Jim Sotos (Hot Moves) – he instead aims for social relevance.
Does he achieve it? Well, he certainly tries; the conflict between the town folk and the Native Americans is given space and consideration, but ultimately doesn’t tie into the central mystery. Let’s call it a Woke Herring, and an admirable and serious stab at commentary. (See also: Prophecy and Humanoids from the Deep for similar themes.)
When Sotos isn’t focused on the case, the screenplay by Erwin Goldman (Room 222) finds sympathy for Melissa; uprooted from the city, and forced to move back with mom (Susan Strasberg – The Manitou) and dad (Patrick Macnee – Waxwork) to mom’s rinky dink hometown, Melissa is rebelling from them and trying to fit in with the locals. She develops a sweet bond with Marci, who sees Melissa as merely misunderstood; how could she possibly be committing these murders?
While the film has the leering, voyeuristic aspect of the era down cold, the killings are very tame; there’s a lot of thrusting of black gloves with knives, yet penetration is sadly lacking. (Yes, we’re as concerned with the money shot in horror as we are in porn. Or so I’ve heard.) Since Sweet Sixteen can’t (or won’t) compete with the gorefests of the day, it falls back on its somewhat tenuous grasp as a thriller (the plot could be tighter), which is propelled forward by a very strong and recognizable cast.
Having Bo Hopkins play a cop is as ubiquitous as Joe Don Baker playing one, so his ease with the role goes a long way to move the story along in his inimitable slow turn style; Kimmell is still as plucky and fresh as she was in the previous year’s Friday, Macnee is an effective Helicopter Day Player, Strode slimes with the best of them, and Shirley does her best to have the focus placed on her performance and not her appearance. It’s a classy ensemble for a film that rides the line between the lurid and the lithe, and they just push it to this side of respectable.
So, the take on Sweet Sixteen is up to the individual: crass exploitation, or fairly clever murder mystery? Personally, I think it’s a bit of Column A and B; that it wavers between the two extremes has kept it from permanently nesting in either camp, when it could reasonably fit in both. It doesn’t really matter in the end, as long as you set a date on your calendar and buy Melissa something nice – and preferably not too sharp.
Sweet Sixteen is available on Blu-ray from Code Red.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965)