Monday, August 6, 2012

Summer of Slash: Happy Birthday to Me

Note: This is the final entry for this summer’s Summer of Slash series. Thanks for following along and reading! More horror reviews will return in October with the 3rd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon. Until then…

Before I begin with the review proper, allow me to give a brief history of the Canadian slasher: Canadian slashers are a different animal – they favor character development and plot over grimy aesthetics and gore effects – so it’s no surprise when one sits down to watch Happy Birthday to Me that not only do we get a slasher that nearly clocks in at two hours (!), but we get a film that is interested in following through on all of the plot points it introduces instead of just rushing through The Meat with bloody killing after bloody killing. In fact, Happy Birthday to Me boasts "SIX OF THE MOST BIZZARE MURDERS YOU WILL EVER SEE!” on its poster, and it’s true, they are quite creative (the coverbox has always been a favorite of mine), but they’re very tame in contrast to what people were seeing from slashers thanks to the work that Tom Savini was doing in the early ‘80s. So then, it seems that the biggest difference between Canadian slashers and American slashers is the preference for tone and pacing and character development over gore and gratuitous nudity. 


In fact, the goriest Canadian slasher film is probably My Bloody Valentine which isn’t even that gory. But that never seemed to bother Canadian slasher films; they never concerned themselves too much with the gore game, leaving that more or less to the Americans. I don’t know that “classy” is the word I use, but they seek to achieve a more mature tone about the subgenre – I suppose their producers would liken them more to “thrillers” than “slashers” – that is a nice reprieve from the what, by 1981, was getting ready to become the prototypical American slasher film.  

Probably my favorite non-Halloween slasher is Canadian: My Bloody Valentine, which is a wonderful blend of the gory American slasher and the emphasis on character development and tension within the unraveling of a plot that was commonplace in Canadian slasher films.  The movie that inspired Halloween, Black Christmas, is Canadian, too, as is the goofy but fun Terror Train and the efficiently made, although kind-of forgettable (with exception of Michael Ironside’s performance), Visiting Hours.  It wasn’t great for the Canadians, though. The excessively dull Prom Night, keeps the Canadians from batting 1.000, here, but they all are important in that they were alternatives to the more overt, in-your-face aesthetic of the American slasher. 

So, you may be asking what the point is of mentioning these other Canadian slashers? It provides some context for Happy Birthday to Me and makes me think that this here-film we’re talking about today falls somewhere in between the likes of minor Canadian slashers like Terror Train and Visiting Hours and the lesser Prom Night. It’s at times abhorrent in its dullness and daft screenplay; however, there are splashes of goofiness/cheese (the murders) and style from director J. Lee Thompson (I may be wrong, but to this point, this may be the first time I’ve seen a director care enough to use deep focus in a slasher movie) who was famous for his Cape Fear and The Guns of the Navarone (it’s important, too, that  I mention that Thompson treats this all very seriously and doesn’t have an annoying detached “I’m better than this” attitude that plagued a lot of directors that delved into the slasher subgenre for work), adding a bit of old-Hollywood prestige to a small-scale, Canadian slasher.

And hot damn is this movie not wanting to act “small-scale;” in fact, Happy Birthday to Me is operatic for a slasher film: the constant rain, the actors proclaiming to the heavens “WHY?!”, and the musical score at the end that makes us feel like we’re watching some grand scale epic. It’s all very over-the-top, cheesy fun (there is even a disco dancing scene) that isn’t insulting, by any means, it just isn’t all that intriguing. The plot: someone is knocking off the “Top Ten,” an elite group of students at a prep school. Virginia “Ginny” Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) is among this popular group of students, yet she seems different than the other snobbish students that comprise the “Top Ten.” When the body count starts to pile up, Ginny begins to have flashbacks to a car accident she was involved in. Her mom died in the accident, and it injured Ginny so badly that she needed to undergo an experimental medical procedure. We can all see where this is going. As Ginny tries to get her life in order, her fellow friends and “Top Ten” members begin dying in fantastical, gruesome ways; it is in this premise that Happy Birthday to Me works.

One of the things I appreciated about the film – a general thing to like about almost all Canadian slashers – is the intelligence in which it presents the tropes of the slasher. As Ginny’s friends begin dying, we notice that before each bizarre murder they greet the killer with a “thank goodness it’s you” or “oh, it’s you can you help me out…” an interesting twist to the slasher. All we see of the killer is black gloves (in a nice nod to the giallo film), and the fact that the killer is able to get so close to the victims (compounded by the fact that the victims seem to know the killer) leads us to believe Ginny is the killer.

Any intelligent viewer can see that Ginny is probably the killer, but the film has more up its sleeve than just the typical red herrings as it revels in its ridiculous plot twists. I cannot tell you how the screenwriters ended up where they did or that I even care enough to try and figure it all out; I mean, if it weren’t for the weird way the killer dispatches their victims, the laborious pace of the film would be its total undoing. Its tone is too serious for such a ridiculous premise. And that’s a big time problem with the film: I was bored. Shave 30 minutes off of this thing and you have a winner. I know what they were going for: a “real” (read: legitimate) thriller not just “some” slasher; however, the problem with that is the story is just too goofy to take seriously as a real thriller. Happy Birthday to Me is fun in the same way Argento’s Tenebre is fun (another inane plot wrought with horribly convoluted and arbitrary twists and swerves yet still a helluva a fun and gory movie) as we just accept the twists and turns for what they are: a live-action version of a “Scooby-Doo” episode (complete with a mask being ripped off at the end!).

So what does work for the film? Well, for starters it looks nice. This is a big taking a stab (sorry) at the slasher film; or, I should say, looking to exploit the dollars that were to be made off the huge success of Friday the 13th (this film was released two weeks after the first Friday sequel, which coincidently also had a protagonist named Ginny). Nevertheless, it is a film backed by a big studio, and it looks like a major motion picture, not some grimy exploitation slasher (I’m not saying one is more preferable than the other), and it shows in the professionalism in the film’s aesthetic – something that was always apparent in Canadian slashers.

In fact, Paramount wanted the film since they had worked with producer John Dunning a year prior on My Bloody Valentine, but they were constantly getting heat from the MPAA for their previous forays into the slasher (Friday the 13th would be the major one) and so they decided to bow out. Columbia bought the rights to the film partly because of its director Thompson – who was still somewhat of a name to the studios – and partly because they hadn’t really ventured into the slasher subgenre. The film was kept intact (although there were reports from the set that during production, gorier set pieces had been conceived but were ultimately voted down) unlike a lot of slasher films at the time, and I think one of the reasons for that was Thompson’s reputation (this was before he started doing Death Wish sequels) in Hollywood as a trustworthy director. Thompson adds little touches here and there that make the film seem like something more than just a mere slasher (again, another attribute of the Canadian slasher), but his panache, if you will, isn’t enough to save the film from the doldrums of its runtime.  

Another thing I really liked about the film: Melissa Sue Anderson. At the time, this was a big deal for a major star on television to show up in a movie like this and play against type. Of course, we see this all the time now (especially in the mid-‘90s with Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt), but for 1981 it must have come as quite a shock to see Mary Ingalls in a film whose sole promotional tactic was “SIX OF THE MOST BIZARRE MURDERS YOU WILL EVER SEE!” (Can’t you tell that I just love that tagline?) and then placing a dude’s agape face with kabob skewer penetrating through the mouth on the poster art. Not quite “Little House on the Prairie.” Anderson is quite good at playing psychotic, and she’s more than up to the task of hamming it up alongside other stalwarts like Glenn Ford.

Happy Birthday to Me is a bit of cult favorite. I don’t really get it myself, but I suppose there’s enough cheese here (as well as the innovative murders) to make the film more lasting than it has any right to be (I mean, there are certainly 30-plus slashers I would recommend before this one). Silly dialogue like, “I want to hear all the gory details about your night together” after the killer has impaled poor Matt Craven with a shish kabob can be heard during a scene between Ginny and one of her friends. And that’s all fine and good for a slasher; it just stands out here because of the contrast between lines like that and the tone, not to mention that ending…oof.

“Does daddy want a big piece or a little piece?” This line of dialogue triggers the hilariously awful (mostly awful) ending to the film. The final set piece has an almost subversive sense of humor about it as I can no doubt see Thompson laughing to himself staging the scene. However, it should be noted that in no way does Happy Birthday to Me feel like an “outsider” coming in and making a mockery of the slasher subgenre; as I’ve alluded to before, Thompson seems pleased with himself but not in a smug way. The ending has a twist that is laughable but I’m sure was shocking at the time. The funny thing is that unlike a lot of the other Canadian slasher films, Happy Birthday to Me isn’t as straightforward with its narrative; it has to resort to a twist ending and red herrings galore before finally (via flashback) the killer reveals just how she killed all of Ginny’s friends.

Like a lot of studios that tried their hand at the slasher, it just looks nice but is often too ordinary and reeks of a bigger studio trying to do something grimy but not being able to go all the way with it. It’s much too sanitized – similar to the previous year when MGM tried their hand at the Halloween template with the sort of effective but ultimately banal  He Knows You’re Alone. There are moments where I can see what all the fuss is about; however, if you actually sit down and try to watch this film and follow its narrative, you’re likely to go insane. I think the poster art is fantastic – it’s probably the main reason why when people think about Happy Birthday to Me today, they remember it fondly – and that the professionalism found in the film’s aesthetic is a plus and the theatrical, over-the-top acting is charming in a cheesy way, but it just doesn’t coalesce for me.

But hey, ask me to sit down and watch a slasher movie that has all of those aforementioned assets, and I’ll gladly oblige. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too hard on Thompson’s film. I mean, there is death by shish-kabob in this movie alongside other wacky murders, and isn’t that what this glorious subgenre is all about? So maybe I should just tell myself to shut up and enjoy the damn movie, already.


  1. I haven't seen this one - it's on the docket for this year, though! - but I just wanted to thank you for that absolutely wonderful treatment of Canadian slashers in the opening of your review. It is a subject that I know to be of particular interest to the both of us, and I enjoy your thoughts on the matter every time they crop up.

    1. Thanks, Tim.

      I feel like I rushed this one due to leaving for a mini-vacation last week, but I'm glad you got the gist of what I was getting at with the Canadian vs American slasher. It's a subject that always fascinates me because even in the era of DVD and OnDemand, a lot of these Canadian slashers still go unseen.

      Had I not written this before I left for vacation last week (and tried to post it again before I leave for another vacation this week), I probably would have devoted another two or three paragraphs to the subject (covering each particular film)...but, alas, I didn't have the time. I will say that your admiration for Terror Train prompted me to give it another shot, and I liked it a lot more the second go-round.

      Anyway, thanks for checking these out! I can't wait for October...I have some really good Italian horrors lined up.

  2. In addition to one of the Death Wish sequels, Thompson also directed the Charles Bronson vehicle 10 to Midnight, which is kind of a hybrid of the slasher and vigilante cop genres, although it's considerably more lurid than this film (probably because it's not Canadian). I haven't seen Happy Birthday to Me in ages and I need to check it out again one of these days.

  3. I guess my main reason for loving this one is pure childhood memories. This was back in the day when the cable remote was the size of a trade paperback with features including individual buttons for each channel and a long cord running from it all the way to your television. HBO was in its infancy, and they hadn't quite grasped the concept of what was and what wasn't appropriate for the specific time of day. I was, I believe, a 3rd grader at the time, and I specifically remember being in the downstairs TV room of my afternoon sitter's house. Flicking on the telly, I was treated at that tender age to the wacky final scenes of HBTM. Avoiding any spoilers, as you so deftly have done here, allow me to say the... uh... dinner guests flipped my melon. It didn't actually scare me, but when I was old enough, I proceeded to rent the film with all due haste. Interestingly enough, I wound up seeing many horror films during my tender years in the same manner, brief channel flips to catch all the extreme bits followed years later by a passion to see the movies in their entirety. In a way, it's what created my mission-like attraction to spookshows in the first place. I suppose I have a soft place in my heart for HBTM as it one of my strongest childhood memories.