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Happy Birthday to Me

Part One of Teenage Wastedland

     "I could just kill you!"

-- the Entire Cast    

 

     

Reviews:

Gonzoid Cinema

 

 

BuzzKillers!

So ... Who Wants Cake?

 

Watch it!

AMAZON

DVD

 
Sights &
Sounds:
Happy
Birthday
to Me
(1981)
 Columbia
 Pictures

The Official

Tally:

Total Suspects :: 6

The Body Count :: 9

Death By:

Slit Throat x 2

Spinning Wheel Face Plant

Free Weight Freefall

Garden Shears

Fire Poker Braining

Knife to the Nethers

The Most 

Unorthodox
Death Scene:

Death by Shish-Kebab

And the "What

the Hell Are
You Doing in
This Movie?"
Award Goes To:

Glenn Ford

 

We open at night, with a slow pan over the tranquil campus of Crawford Prep School. And as our focus shifts to one particular student, Bernadette OíHara (Lesley Donaldson), who appears to be in a hurry to get somewhere, the soundtrack turns sinister (-- as the rogue POV cam kicks in), and then sheís suddenly attacked by a flurry of leather straps! Her attacker, however, turns out to be Winston; the bulldog of the schoolís head mistress, Mrs. Patterson (Frances Hyland), and Bernadette just got tangled up in his leash. While extricating her student, Patterson chastises the girl to be more careful, and how she expects more from Bernadette, who belongs to the Crawford Top Ten: an elite, and elitist, group of students that spend way too much time at the local watering hole, The Scarlet Woman. (You can easily spot a Top Tenner by the long, striped scarves they wear.) And after silently taking this plot-specific tongue-lashing, once Patterson is out of earshot, the student reveals how she really feels about the old hag. 

Moving on to the parking garage, just as Bernadette is about to start her car, an assailant attacks from the backseat. Grabbing the victim by the throat with black-gloved hands [Plot Point #1], the unseen attacker pulls the girl into the back and throttles her until she stops moving. But credit to Bernadette for playing possum, and, as the attacker lets go, she manages to get out of the car. Alas, not for long, as after several twists and turns Bernadette runs right into the killer -- whoís wearing white tennis shoes [Plot Point #2]. She knows whoever this is [Plot Point #3] but doesnít realize this is the person who attacked her. Thus, thinking its safe, Bernadette relaxes until the bad guy produces a straight razor and slits her throat.

We shift to The Scarlet Woman, where the local Shriners are snockered and stuck on verse forty-five of "99-Bottles of Beer on the Wall". One table over sits the Crawford Ten -- well, nine now, I guess. Only seven are accounted for, but the rest start trickling in. Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson), who turns out to be our main character, arrives next, making it almost a quorum. Then, creepy Alfred (Jack Blum), complete with psycho-loner army surplus jacket, white shoes, and black gloves [Suspect #1], finally shows up with his pet rat, George. Rounding out the rest of the Crawford Ten we have two couples: Rudy (David Eisner -- the class clown) and Maggie (Lenore Zann), and Greg and Amelia (Richard Rebere and Lisa Langolas); and then rounded out with Steve (Matt Craven), whoís a compulsive gambler, Etienne (Michel LaBelle), a motorcycle riding foreign exchange student from France, and Ann (Tracy Bregman), who is Virginiaís best friend. And while the rest of the group ponders where Bernadette could be, Rudy and Greg pick a fight with the head Shriner and wind up sneaking George the rat into one of their beer steins. All hell breaks loose but the bartender saves the collegians from a Shriner-ass-kicking by tossing them out of his tavern. Outside, they hear the warning horn for the drawbridge, meaning it's time for another round of the Crawford Top Ten's traditional "Game" where they race over the drawbridge before it opens to let the passing boats through. When Virginia winds up with Greg and Amelia in his Trans Am, we also notice that Alfred slinks away on his moped, wanting no part of this. As the drawbridge starts to rise, the first few cars make it, Steve chickens out, and, despite Virginia's hysterical protests, Greg floors it to pull off a Blues Brothers cum Dukes of Hazard stunt. When they barely make it over, the rattled Virginia has some kind of hysterical flashback involving the bridge [Plot Point #4], completely loses it, and then bolts from the car and goes screaming into the night. When Ann asks what happened, and Greg doesnít give her a satisfactory answer, she replies -- with venomous conviction -- "I could kill you."  

Couple that with her black gloves makes Ann Suspect #2.

Making her way home, Virginia cuts through a cemetery -- a familiar route, apparently. Stopping at her motherís grave, she produces a pair of garden shears from somewhere, starts trimming the grass around the headstone, and begins talking to the deceased. Nearby, amongst the other tombstones, a Rogue POV starts stalking her; itís only Etienne, who offers to walk her home. But there's something ominous and threatening with the offer, and when Virginia declines Etienne sneakily follows her  home anyway and starts peeking through the windows. [Making him Suspect #3, or is he just a perverted Peeping Tom?] Inside, Virginia finds her dad, Hal (Lawrence Doe), waiting up for her; and he wants to know if she went to the cemetery again. Seems he doesnít think itís a healthy idea that his daughter goes there so frequently; and then we get some back-story about how they just moved back into the house after the wife/mom died some four years ago. [Plot Point #5] We also find out that Virginia has some emotional baggage about her mother. But with the help of her psychiatrist, she feels all can be made right once they unlock some repressed memories. So, combining this with her behavior in the graveyard, this makes her a psychological powder keg and, between you and me, I think this mystery is solved already...

When John Dunning and Andre Link co-founded the Quebec based Cinepix productions in 1962 their original goal was to give the Canadian film industry a much needed kick-in-the-ass jumpstart and knock down a few taboos concerning what you could and couldn't get away with on screen while they were at. On both accounts they were wildly successful. With Link handling the finances and Dunning the creative direction, Cinepix spent the next decade butting heads with the Canadian Film Development Corp. -- the government's oversight committee on these federally subsidized features -- over the alleged soft-core sleaze they were peddling. Then, in the mid 1970's, Cinepix opened another can of worms when the backed David Cronenberg's Shivers -- a/k/a They Came from Within -- whose frightfully and wonderfully perverse story of a high-rise infested with a sexually transmitted killer slug had the CFDC ready to string the producers up and commit the director into the nearest insane asylum. Undaunted, Cinepix backed Cronenberg's follow up, Rabid, and then had their biggest hit yet backing Ivan Reitman's summer time comedic ode Meatballs.

Now, after spending several days researching and trying to understand the Canadian Tax-Shelter laws, which only led to even more confusion on my part, from what little I could understand the biggest problem with the way it was set up was that several producers, like Mel Brook's main characters in The Producers, bilked the system and made more money when their films bombed. So, the less spent on the production meant more money in the bank, resulting in some pretty dire domestic product. At some point, hoping for better results on screen, American studios were allowed to take advantage of these tax-breaks and started backing several features north of the border. And after the financial success of Richard and Peter Simpson's proto-slasher Prom Night, which resulted in a bidding war between Paramount and AVCO-Embassy, Bunning and Levy saw a burgeoning niche market just waiting to be exploited.

AVCO-Embassy won the rights to Prom Night but Paramount had a back-up plan, and had the last laugh, really, when they picked Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th instead. Columbia pictures, meanwhile, saw the money their rivals were making when the slasher genre literally exploded in 1980, and, needing something quick and cheap to bolster their output with the looming actor and director's strike ready to grind Hollywood to a halt, the studio agreed to pay Cinepex five million for a proposed production tentatively titled The Secret. However, to cash in on the current holiday-themed slasher bonanza the title was quickly changed to Happy Birthday to Me, which promised six of the most bizarre murders you'd ever see. Well, three of them would probably qualify for that boast, but, as usual, we're getting ahead of ourselves just a bit as we pick up the action in Virginia's bedroom, where our heroine grows concerned over an open window.

Knowing Etienne is prowling around outside somewhere, she closes it before the movie teases the audience with several false scares while she strips down to take a shower. (And for all you Little House on the Prairie fans, I regret to inform that there are no nude scenes by anyone in this film. Yeah, Iím just as disappointed as your are.) Hearing something over the water, the girl runs back to her bedroom. It's empty, but the window is open again ... The next morning, Virginia and Ann aren't as late for class as they thought. For, Mrs. Patterson is holding up their science lecture to ask if anyone has seen Bernadette because she never made it home last night. All the girls can do is add that she never showed up at the bar, either, and, after the principal leaves, the teacher resumes the lesson of the day: namely and experiment involving putting electrical charges into dismembered frog legs and watchinf them twitch. (SCIENCE!) Ominously watching the end result, these experiments cause Virginia to have another, violent flashback:

A slightly younger Virginia is in some kind of lab, lying on some kind of gurney, unconscious, with her head hooked up to some kind of electronic wang-doodle apparatus. Her father is there, along with several doctors, and we catch something about how "Her damaged brain cells are regenerating by themselves" until young Virginia suddenly wakes up, but only utters two words: "My birthday..."

Later, when Virginia relates these new memories to her shrink, Dr. Faraday (Glenn Ford) reveals she was part of a radical experiment after "the accident." Seems a Dr. Firebrau combined the same principles of certain lizards regenerating limbs with several percolating kilowatts of electricity, and, viola, a new, synthesized brain. (Okay, just where in the hell are they going with this?) Virginia still canít remember this "accident" but Faraday warns her not to push it, to give it more time, and it all will come back to her eventually ... Later, we find the Crawford Nine gathered at the dirt track to watch Etienne bully his way to a win. After the gang congratulates him, they decide to meet later at the tavern to celebrate. When the others leave, Virginia stays behind to personally congratulate him. Here, Etienne reveals he couldnít lose because of his good luck charm, and then produces a pair of Virginia's panties he swiped the night before. Disgusted, Virginia leaves but we spot Alfred lingering around as well. (So we can officially eliminate Etienne as a suspect and officially call him a creep.) That evening, while Etienne has his bike up on blocks giving it a tune up, unknown to him, a figure in white tennis shoes stealthily makes their way into the shop. Sneaking up from behind while Etienne revs up the throttle, the killer grabs his scarf and throws it into the drive chain; and when it snags and pulls taut, the scarf starts to reel him into the spinning wheel like a hooked fish. And as the killer revs up the motor, turning the back wheel into an ersatz salad shooter, the snagged fabric sucks the victim into it and slices his head up like a ripe tomato. 

Which makes you kinda wonder if it can also make curly fries?

With three people now missing -- the two victims and Alfred -- Ann and Virginia decide to stop by Alfred's house to check up on him. He isnít home, but they sneak in anyway and enter a shrine dedicated to Norman Bates. Seems Alfredís hobby is taxidermy, and his room is littered with stuffed and mounted animals. He also has another gruesome hobby, when they find his workbench covered with several human appendages! The girls are appalled, but canít resist looking under a bloody blanket. They pull it back, revealing Bernadetteís dismembered head! However, Alfred catches them in the act and when he turns on the lights it becomes quite obvious the head they found is a fake. (Alfred acts a little squirrelly, but I think itís because his sanctum sanctorum has been violated.) Pulling out one of the fake headís eyeballs, he offers the girls could model for him -- just like Bernadette, if they wanted too. A little weirded out, the girls decline and quickly leave.

The next day, in an effort to find her missing students, Mrs. Patterson has individual meetings with each of the remaining Ten. When Virginia denies knowing anything, Patterson starts getting a little pithy with her about [you] darn rich kids, getting away with everything, but sheíll put a stop to them. [She isnít wearing black gloves, but with that little tirade weíll still tag her Suspect #5.] Finding Ann waiting for her outside the office, they decide to get the gang together and catch a movie. After the movie lets out, we notice Steve and Maggie are acting awfully friendly -- and we also notice Rudy is missing. But we find him, waiting in the parking lot. Seems no one told him about the movie, and he suspects Steve was behind that and takes a swing at him. Greg manages to break it up but Rudy promises Steve that if he touches Maggie again, heíll kill him. [Ah, Suspect #6.] The scene shifts again and we find Greg, lying on a bench, pumping some iron. Finished with his reps, he places the barbell on the weight stand. Then, our white tennis shoe'd friend shows up again. Greg recognizes whomever this is but doesn't realize the danger. Asking the killer to spot for him and add some more weight, Greg then continues bench-pressing. After several reps, the killer slides the safety stand away. Startled, Greg holds the barbell above his head (-- let's just assume heís too tired to just drop it over his head and roll out of the way, m'kay --) and pleads with the killer to put the stand back. But the killer just takes another weight and drops it on to Gregís crotch, causing him to drop the barbell, which crushes his neck, triggering a volcanic eruption of blood out the victim's mouth. (Okay, if it was Rudy, he just killed the wrong guy.) Later, Amelia shows up with some pizza but finds the bench press equipment in perfect order. (So the killer brought a mop?)

The next day (-- and, man, is this killer taking their own sweet time), the ever dwindling Crawford Ten watch a soccer game, where Alfred, the teamís goalie, stops a penalty kick; after which Rudy manages to score the winning goal right before the final whistle. As the crowd storms the field, during the melee, Rudy asks Virginia to meet him later at the campus chapel. After she agrees, we see the look Rudy gives the eavesdropping Maggie and realize he did this just to piss her off. (Tit for tat on the whole Steve thing.) We also notice that Alfred, who has a thing for Virginia, isnít very happy about this either. On the way to the Chapel, Rudy buries something in the campus flowerbed. (It looked like one of those scarves.) Catching up with Virginia, he takes her up into the bell tower and tries his Quasimodo imitation on her until things take a sinister twist as he produces a knife. Claiming he just wants to cut the bell rope as a practical joke, but then why does he use it to back Virginia into a dark corner where she has another spastic episode and passes out? (Okay, maybe Rudy is the killer.) After an undetermined amount of time (-- as the movie really pulled one on us in that last scene and Iím not all that sure just what the hellís going on), the chaplain doesnít notice a smattering of blood on the floor, and more blood dripping from the ceiling. He pulls the bell rope and it snaps, falls, and spools up around the pool of blood. With that, the chaplain cries murder and runs out of the building. Meanwhile, Virginia is in the grips of another flashback:

Sheís back in the hospital, and weíre treated to some rather disturbing and gruesome scenes of her brain surgery. As the doctor cuts her head open, he starts poking and probing into her damaged brain. But then, after a cursory examination, he declares Virginia to be a lost cause and staples her head back together.

Later, Virginia tells Faraday about what happened after she blacked out. When she woke up, Rudy was gone; she saw the blood, panicked, and got out of there. Unsure if sheís just delusional or serious, Faraday sends her home to get a little rest. (Geez! Where did this guy get his degree? Let's see -- The Tijuana Night School of Faith Healing and Several Holistic Pastes? Well, that would explain a few things... ) After she leaves, he hears a news report about the chapel, and how a bloody knife was found at the scene, and decides that maybe he should look into it.

With four students now missing, the cops are now conducting a campus wide search but are getting nowhere. A Lt. Tracy (Earl Pennington) wants to question Virginia, the last person to see Rudy, but his attention is drawn outside when Tracy finds something sinister in the flowerbed. Of course, all the students follow them, hoping to catch a glimpse of a dead body, leaving Virginia alone in the library. Suddenly, Rudy's body falls from the second floor and lands with a thud. But he's OK, and wants to explain what happened at the chapel. Seems that after Virginia passed out, he cut his hand while hacking at the bell rope to the tune of fifteen stitches. He apologizes for running out on her, and, more importantly, asks if she ratted him out about cutting the chapel bell rope? She didnít, and as a reward, gets to go to the big dance with him. (Wow. Lucky girl.) Outside, the cops unearth the scarf that Rudy buried. A little deeper they find a skull, but when Faraday asks to examine it, he discovers itís tagged as property of the Crawford science department.

Elsewhere, joining her new boyfriend, Virginia, along with Steve, Maggie and Ann, head to an underground hideaway beside the campus swimming pool to smoke some reefer. Despite the lack of any bodies, they all agree that someone is out to get the Crawford Ten. Ever the gambler, Steve wants to place a bet on who will be the next victim, but Virginia, the only one facing the window to the pool, sees Ameliaís apparently dead body float buy. She freaks and runs away as the others turn and see Amelia smiling through the glass, completing the morbid joke. Fake or not, the images of a drowned Amelia trigger more repressed memories for our protagonist:

We see another woman, trapped under some rushing water, and I'm gonna assume this is Virginia's mother. 

We then shift directly to the graveyard, where Virginia chats with mom again. And as the music turns sinister, we spot someone in white tennis shoes softly approaching -- but this time we pan up and see itís Alfred. Sneaking up behind her, he reaches a black-gloved hand into a pocket, but before he can pull whatever it is out, the girl turns and shoves the garden shears right into his guts. (And yes, weíre supposed to notice that sheís wearing black gloves.) As the confused Alfred falls, we see that what he was reaching for was a small rose.

So, the killer is revealed. Or was this another one of Virginiaís psychotic delusions? (With this movie, who knows for sure?) And when Virginia wakes up the next morning, unaffected by last nightís events, we can only conclude it was just another dream. She finds her dad packing; an emergency at work is forcing him out of town for a couple of days, but he promises to be back in time for her birthday. Telling her to have fun at the dance, he leaves. Next, the film confirms the fact that even by 1980 disco was still not dead. And as the gang boogies on down, Steve is already sick of Maggie, who is freaking out, convinced sheís the next victim. He talks Rudy into dancing with her, and as they happily reunite, Virginia turns her attentions on Steve. In full-blown floozy mode, she says her dad is gone for the weekend and invites him over for a midnight snack. He happily agrees. Concerned with her friends erratic behavior, Ann tries to stop them. But Virginia laughs her off and says to meet her tomorrow afternoon to prepare for her birthday party ... Once at the house, Virginia and Steve sit in front of the fireplace -- both heavily under the influence of drugs and alcohol, which leads to some foreplay and snogging that would have gone further but the food is finally done. You see, Virginia cooked up a batch of shish-kabobs -- meat and veggies on a pointed stick, so, yeah, this is gonna end badly -- and playfully feeds Steve several bites. After he cleans off the first stick, she dips the second into some sauce, and as he opens wide, Virginia shoves the skewer right through his mouth and out the back of his neck. With a cold detachment, she watches while his gurgles slowly peeter out. Thus, dispelling any doubts that Virginia is our killer, now we judy have to find out why.

The next day, when Ann arrives she wakes Virginia up. Wanting all the "gory" details about her night with Steve, Virginia claims to not remember a thing about last night past the snogging. (We note she does seem sincere.) Hoping a shower will help clear the cobwebs, all the water does is trigger more flashbacks:

Sheís in a car with her mom. And momís obviously drunk and very distraught over something as they travel along in a driving thunderstorm. Mom swears "Theyíll all pay for what they did." Virginia proclaims she doesnít care about that, but the booze and the rain causes mom to miss the lights and warning horn for the draw bridge. As it rises, the car gets high-centered on the separating sides and eventually spills into the drink. (And they show us the plunge about eight times in case you miss it.) As the car floods, mom is stuck, and canít get out, but manages to roll down a window and tells Virginia to swim to safety. When the daughter doesnít want to, she makes it an order. Then, the window comes down, Virginia escapes, and mom is doomed. Trying to surface, Virginia bonks her head on the passing boat, but her bloodied head eventually bobs to the surface. (Explaining and tying up several plot lines.)

When Virginia snaps out of it, she's outside the shower but notices the floor is covered with water. Pulling back the shower curtain, inside the tub she sees Ann, submerged in the water, with her throat cut. In a panic, Virginia calls Faraday over and confesses that she killed Ann. Thinking she's just having another traumatic episode, Faraday demands to see the body. When she refuses to show him, he takes her by the hand and drags her toward the bathroom, determined to confront her psychosis head on. Sure enough, when he pulls back the shower curtain, the tub is empty and spotless. (So was all this in her head?) After calming her down, Faraday realizes there must be a link between her missing friends and her repressed memories -- and thatís why sheís been dreaming about killing them. (So it was all a dream?!?) When she tells him about jumping the bridge with Greg and Amelia, this seems to confirm his diagnosis; and that must have triggered her repressed memories and homicidal delusions. (Again ... Should she really be on the loose?)

The doorbell rings. It's Lt. Tracy, with word that Ann is missing and they found her car abandoned nearby. With that new wrinkle, Faraday begins to doubt his diagnosis and promises to bring Virginia in for questioning after she wakes up. Taking the gloves off, metaphorically, mind you, the doctor confronts Virginia and asks if the six missing kids had anything to do with her motherís accident. That accusation seems to do the trick as his patient suddenly has total recall. (About frigging time. How long is this damn movie anyway?):

Four years ago, Virginiaís mother, Estelle (Sharon Acker), invited the six richest kids in Crawford -- Ann, Bernadette, Alfred, Steve and Greg -- to her daughter's birthday party. But when they pull a King's Row and none of them show up, mom is indignant and downs another fifth of Scotch. When Dad calls home, a disgusted Estelle hands the phone over to Virginia so he can apologize for not being there. She lies to him, and says all her friends are there and theyíre having a great time. As Estelle continues to drink and rant and chew on the furniture, we glean that she came from the other side of Crawford's tracks, then married herself rich husband in a vain attempt to wheedle her way up the social hierarchy. And when Virginia confesses that the kids didn't come because theyíre all over at Annís party, this so enrages Estelle she decides they will just have to go and crash it.

Despite a raging thunderstorm, Estelle, with her daughter in tow, drives over to the palatial estate but can't get past the front gate. Undaunted, Estelle makes a scene and demands to see Annís father. And if we listen close, we pick up some cryptic clues when she rips into the groundskeeper: something is said about not being paid off so easy this time [Plot Point #6], and we realize that Estelle and Annís father have a sordid history. (The plot thickens.) With much effort, Virginia drags her back to the car and convinces her to just head home. 

They never made it.

When Virginia snaps out of it and runs away, again!, Faraday lets her go. But she doesn't go far, grabs a fire poker, circles back, and proceeds to bash his head in with it. (And I will go on record stating I donít think the human body contains enough blood to shower the walls like that.) Later, when Virginiaís dad returns, bearing gifts, he finds his house dark and silent. A quick search finds a room covered in the doctorís blood, but no body. He freaks, thinking something has happened to Virginia, too. When the house proves empty, he heads to her favorite spot -- her motherís grave. Making his way through the rain to the cemetery, where he finds Amelia in a state of muted shock. He continues on, first tripping over Faradayís body, and then finds his wifeís grave has been dug up. He then spots the lights in the guest cottage, where the original birthday party was to have taken place. 

Inside, he finds a truly ghoulish and macabre scene: the table is still set the same way it was four years ago -- I take it no one's been in there since? -- only this time, the guests are all present and accounted for. Propped up in their assigned seats, next to his decomposed wife, the mystery of the missing dead teens is now solved. And as dear old dad locks up in shock, his little girl comes out of the kitchen with a birthday cake, candles aglow, singing "Happy Birthday to Me" sweetly to herself. Happy to see daddy, she sits him down at the table. All he can do is drop his head in his hands and cry as Virginia blows out the candles and produces a knife to cut the cake -- but then uses it to slash dadís throat instead. Unfazed, she then moves down the table to Annís body, slumped over on the table. But when she pulls the body up *gasp* itís really Virginia! -- Whoa, whatís going on? Then, the evil and psychotic Virginia says all thatís left to do is kill sister Non-Psychotic Virginia. -- What? Twins?!? She has an evil twin?!? I call no frakkin' way! And with one final insult to the audience's intelligence, Psychotic Virginia pulls off a latex mask revealing -- JINKIES!, it was really Ann all along! And the call of No frakkin' way still stands.

Somehow, he typed dubiously, Ann managed to drug Virginia with chloroform before each murder, and, with some unwitting help from Alfred, had a Virginia mask she used while killing everyone. But we still donít know why?

Well, with a twelfth hour confession from Ann, it seems Estelle was a floozy who had an affair with her father. She got pregnant in the process, so Annís father paid Estelle to go away. But Annís mom still found out and divorced the creep, destroying Ann's family. So, guess what?, they really are sisters! But Ann has wanted revenge on Virginia's family for her father's misdeeds ever since, and focused all of that rage on her illegitimate sister since Estelle was already dead. Why she had to kill the others is beyond me, though. E'yup, all that brain surgery crap, flashbacks, and psychotic episodes meant absolutely nothing. And with her dirty deeds all but done, Ann says this master plan will culminate with Virginiaís apparent suicide. But when she attempts to slit Virginiaís wrists, her victim manages to fight off the chloroform long enough to grapple over the knife. And in the ensuing struggle, it is Ann who gets knifed to death. And in one final morbid twist that would have worked better if the audience hadn't just gotten screwed for the last hour and a half, Ann's twisted revenge scheme apparently works out in the end as the cops burst in, just in time to see Ann's body fall, leaving Virginia holding the bloody knife in a room full of corpses.

The End

Man ... I didn't think this movie would ever get over. And if I have one beef with Happy Birthday to Me, and it's a major one, it's that the film is just too damned long. Clocking in at a whopping 110-minutes, there's way too much time spent between the killings, where nothing significant happens, trudging through muddled flashback after flashback, and slapping us in the face with several red-herrings and meaningless subplots as the mystery drags you along before going all Scooby-Doo on us in the last three minutes, torpedoing all that came before, making this is a tough pill to swallow after all that sludging. And yet, I am a bit torn over the ending. On the one hand, the revelation that Ann was behind it all along makes absolutely no sense at all. None. And this doesn't really work if you go back and think about it. At all. However, with this nonsensical twist we do get that awesome "oh shit" ending with the innocent Virginia completely railroaded up shit-creek without a paddle.

In the original script Virginia was the killer all along, avenging her mother after cracking up. In fact, there were two scripts for Happy Birthday to Me. The first treatment was penned by John Saxton, who wrote the notoriously awesome Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. But Dunning, wanting more violence and brain surgery scenes, thought it needed a little help and brought in Peter Jobin and Timothy Bond for a little punch up. None of these writers realized there were two scripts until shooting was almost wrapped up, with the production cherry-picking several key elements from both. Neither script, however, called for what was to become the final twist. This change was scripted in late because, at the time, all slasher movies needed a twelfth hour shock for the sake of a shock that never make one damn bit of sense. And to belabor the point, with the film spending so much time elaborating on Virginia's past and head troubles it just compounds the feeling of having wasted your time for the first 107 minutes, which makes it really hard to like this movie more than I do. And I want to like it. And there is a lot to like.

The film itself is very slick and nice to look at, with some excellent cinematography and fluid camerawork. Credit for that, I guess, must go to director J. Lee Thompson and cinematographer Miklůs Lente. Over the years, Thompson has had quite the career. Responsible for the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone before being relegated to several Charles Bronson exploitation pieces for Golan and Globus, obviously, the guy new what he was doing. The whole film has a very serene, almost dreamlike quality about it, which, while nice to look at, makes the pace almost glacial between the murders. And there's the rub. The killings themselves are handled effectively with plenty of grue. And rumor has it Dunning had to actually rein Thompson in, who wanted things even bloodier and more ghastly, or face the wrath of the MPAA censors. Rumor also has it that it was Thompson who came up with the idea for the double-twist ending. In front of the camera, Melissa Sue Anderson was ready, willing and able to shake her Little House on the Prairie image, and would later team up with The Waltons alum Mary Beth McDonough in the effective witch's brew, Midnight Offerings. (And McDonough was in her own slasher movie, Mortuary, that I'm currently busting my hump trying to track down for this retrospective.) And poor Glenn Ford; he's just mailing it in and paying the rent, here, and all he gets is a fire poker to the head. 

Now ... We usually watch these types of bloody body-count films for one of three reasons. The first is the thrills and chills the film will hopefully provide; secondly, to see what new and inventive ways the creators manage to dispatch their cast of canon fodder; and third, to see how the mystery untangles itself and what twisted motives the killer spews when they're finally revealed. And in the early 1980's Dunning and Levin and their fellow Canadian filmmakers turned these notions into a cottage industry, and earned themselves a genre all their own known as Canuxploitation, which includes the likes of Prom Night, The Humongous, Curtains, and Terror Train -- and one only has to watch these to tell the difference in higher quality between them and their American counterparts.

And to keep cashing in, after Happy Birthday to Me was well into production, Dunning and Levin took a small chunk of Columbia's money and used it to finance and shoot the meaner, grittier, and far superior slasher, My Bloody Valentine, for Paramount, which actually debuted before Happy Birthday to Me to hit a February 13th opening date -- a Friday the 13th, mind you -- before Valentine's Day, 1981, in almost 1200 theaters. A month later, with the help of some stellar, and soon to be iconic, poster art and ad campaign, Happy Birthday to Me went into a much quieter release, as Columbia didn't embrace this type of feature the way Paramount did. Still, I'm sure they weren't complaining about the business the film brought in.

Before I wrap this up, after all that bitching, let me pause and give Happy Birthday to Me some credit for the things it does right. The official rules of the slasher movie were just starting to take shape and weren't set in stone yet; and it should be noted that this film actually started a few of these rules. So, let's give Dunning and company some major props for these original ideas. Their film is high on mood, atmosphere, and suspense, but, in the end, it just can't sustain this because it's just too darn long and collapses under its own weighty and, in the end, worthless back-story. Speaking honestly, all they'd have to do is go back through the movie, gut out about forty-minutes of worthless filler, tighten it up, rethink that ending a bit, and then, well, they might just have the genre-classic of all time on their hands.

Happy Birthday to Me (1981) The Birthday Film Company :: Canadian Film Development Corporation :: Famous Players Ltd. :: Columbia Pictures / P: John Dunning, Andrť Link / AP: Stewart Harding, Lawrence Nesis / D: J. Lee Thompson / W: John C.W. Saxton, Peter Jobin, Timothy Bond / C: Miklůs Lente / E: Debra Karen / M: Bo Harwood, Lance Rubin / S: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Tracey E. Bregman, Matt Craven, Sharon Acker, Lawrence Dane 

And the Body Count Continues...

More Teenage Wastedland

Originally Posted: 02/08/02 :: Rehashed: 08/31/10

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.

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