Judge Christopher Kulik's Sweet 16 party was highlighted by a cake made out of alum. Yeah, scary!
What terrors are unleashed when a girl turns…[insert title]!
Facts of the Case
Melissa Morgan (Aleisha Shirley, Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone) is brand new to a small Texas town. She's tantalizing in every way, and makes the local male population drool excessively. One night, she makes out with a guy from a bar, but after her father rescues her from losing her virginity, he's knocked off by an unseen killer. The next morning, Sherriff Dan Burke (Bo Hopkins, U Turn) hears of the incident and goes to investigate, followed by his amateur sleuth of a daughter Marci (Dana Kimmell, Friday The 13th, Part III). Burke is worried the killer may strike again and he naturally does after another intimate encounter involving Melissa. Forced to give his girlfriend (Susan Strasberg, Pysch-Out) the cold shoulder, Burke is determined to nab the killer…and discover what secret Melissa is keeping.
Released during the Slasher Boom of the early 1980s, Sweet Sixteen stands out—if only marginally—against its more well known brood. The title may suggest otherwise, sounding like a copy of something like Happy Birthday to Me, and using its female lead more for her breasts than her acting quality. I won't hide the fact that unknown Shirley does have a bod for sin, and the opening shower sequence in the Director's Cut emphasizes this more than anything else. Don't expect too much more, however, as Sweet Sixteen only barely touches the surface of exploitative fare. Director Jim Sotos (Forced Entry) manages to give this shoestring production an atmosphere leaning more towards mystery than blood-and-guts horror. This is what has given the picture its cult appeal, as it concentrates less on the actual killings (and likewise the disgusting gore effects) in lieu of something more patient, cryptic, and melodramatic.
Unfortunately, the revelations of Sweet Sixteen are rather unsurprising. The film desperately wants to be fresh, but instead comes off as rather tepid and forgettable. Its attempts to masquerade itself as a murder mystery seem almost like an excuse to avoid the standards of the time. I certainly give it points for trying, as the characters are at least given some development and conflict. The story has its fair share of red herrings and complications, but there's a brutal murder every 20 minutes to keep the slasher crowd and gorehounds satisfied. In other words, the genres shifting almost cancel each other out, resulting in something purely formulaic and unexciting. Plus, even though the film seems to shy away from tastelessness, its Native American stereotypes are very tough to swallow; I can accept a bunch of dumb Texans, but dumb and racist Texans is crossing the line for most audiences.
The performances from its eclectic cast are interesting enough but also could be easily dismissed. The usually-typecast Hopkins has done the southern law enforcement bit many times, but the guy is congenial anyway. Shirley is quite good (whether she's clothed or not), and is believable enough as this underage siren with some kind of curse hanging over her. The late Susan Strasberg does ok as the love interest, but the screenwriter fails to make her significant in any way. DeMille regular Henry Wilcoxon (Cleopatra) makes his final (and incredibly thankless) film appearance as Greyfeather, the Sherriff's primary suspect. Also thrown into the mix are genre vets Michael Pataki (Halloween 4), Don Shanks (Halloween 5), and Kimmell, whose gumshoe instincts would make Nancy Drew laugh in her face. (She believes a bear killed the first victim despite the clearly visible knife wounds and the state she lives in, go figure!)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sweet Sixteen's debut on DVD is just as mediocre and disappointing as the film itself. Code Red, the distributing arm of BCI and the Navarre Corporation Company, had planned to make the film one of their first forays in the digital medium, but some major problems arose, beginning with the available source material. For starters, only one print seems to have survived of the director's cut and while the picture and sound quality are seriously flawed, the original version (offered as a mere bonus) is far worse.
So, it's a given which version of Sweet Sixteen is the way to go, as the original theatrical cut sports a horribly compressed image and almost impossible-to-see-what-the-hell-is-going-on-night-scenes. Forget your standard interlacing, this print has so many anomalies it plumbs new depths in poorly presented DVD quality. Still, I must confess I did prefer the Agatha Christie-like opening sequence (complete with a snazzy title card) that features Kimmell, even if the opening to the Director's Cut (with Shirley in the shower) makes more sense story-wise.
As for the Director's Cut, it isn't terrible mind you, as the colors and light levels are reasonably balanced; it's the flesh tones and nighttime sequences which suffer tremendously. Many of the faces appear slightly flushed with red, and there are still plenty of scratches and speckles to contend with. The figures and objects are slightly more legible when the film goes nocturnal, but it's still extremely inked. Sweet Sixteen simply hasn't aged well at all, and I'm sure Code Red did their absolute best (or did they?) with what they had. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track for both versions is palatable, but has its fair share of hisses and pops, with some scenes having near-incomprehensible dialogue. What's inexcusable are the absence of sorely-needed subtitles; the disc is not even closed captioned!
Fans of this cult horror film will no doubt rejoice at first, until they realize how poor a presentation this DVD really is. Others need not bother, as there really isn't anything offered here that can be deemed new or fresh.
Guilty, but Code Red gets a reduced sentence for good intentions.
Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
• Theatrical Cut
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