I’ve mentioned this in previous reviews, but I want to talk about it again in more depth. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time at Blockbusters, pacing up and down the Horror aisle. Because my mom liked to copy tapes, we went every single Tuesday, usually for an extended stay while she went over the New Release wall with a fine toothed comb, leaving me to become extensively familiar with all the bizarre and brutal VHS boxes lining the Horror shelves. It was sort of like going to a carnival funhouse where there’s no real “story” or anything to appreciate as you traverse the corridors, just a random collection of surreal and ghoulish images to creep you out. When you’re only a few feet tall, the Horror aisle is towering, vast and imposing, imparting much the same effect.
So yeah, I absolutely loved it. Back in the day, horror movie box covers weren’t the Photoshop atrocities we’re accustomed to today. You know, where all the stars of the film are awkwardly cut and pasted into a row above the title, usually bathed in some inane blue “moonlight” filter and really offering nothing to entice you to rent or buy the film other than “OMG I recognize that actress!”
In the good ole days, though, horror films had some pretty fantastic poster and box art, usually offering up some really gruesome and insane images (not always reflected in the actual film) with nary a concern for how violent and frightening they might appear to youngsters passing by.
Happy Birthday to Me had one of the most memorable pieces of box art I recall so vividly from my childhood and it was perhaps the catalyst for the first time I ever uttered the phrase, “this guy is fucked”.
I got grounded a lot.
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
At Crawford Academy, a private high school for the fabulously wealthy, Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson) is one of the elite “Top Ten” of the school and good friends with the other nine. Her life of obscene riches and popularity isn’t perfect, however, as someone has an axe to grind with the Top Ten and has begun bumping them off faster than one of those annoying internet countdown blogs. Ginny has further problems, as she continues to recover from brain surgery and struggles to remember the accident that nearly killed her. Her father (Glenn Ford in one of the worst performances of his celebrated career) only wants to help her get over her problems, while her friends could care less about whose dying so long as it doesn’t interfere with their money-counting and pot-smoking.
Another early ‘80s slasher flick devoid of the supernatural trappings that would later permeate the subgenre, it’s a bit of a mess. The narrative doesn’t flow particularly well, first starting out as a typical “whodunit” and then devolving into a random assortment of insanity for the remaining half hour. Despite the fact that the primary group of characters were known as the “Top Ten”, I still managed to lose track of how many there were, as their appearances and personalities were all so similar only three or four of the group actually succeeded in standing out.
The first hour is devoted to the “murder mystery” plot, as we’re assured that at least one member of the Top Ten is the killer, but every time we’re introduced to a red herring they’re almost immediately killed off in the following scene by another unseen assailant. To the credit of Academy Award winning director, J. Lee Thompson (trivia: he did not win his Oscar for this film), it’s an amusing trick that manages to keep the audience on their toes.
The poster promises “six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see”, but that’s kind of overestimating the quality of the kills. The majority of them are just dull throat slitting or drowning or blunt force trauma to the skull; I wasn’t so enthused. A few managed to stand out, though, such as a French guy getting his scarf caught in the wheel of his motocross bike, a great death involving a dumbbell set and, of course, the shish kabob kill as seen on the box cover.
Being an ‘80s slasher film, unfortunately, also means that most of the kills are neutered for gore, despite their ingenuity. Oddly, the editing in Happy Birthday to Me is really uneven in regards to what gore and violence it will show. The camera balks at showing you the gory details of the French dude’s death, but apparently one blow to the head from a fire poker can result in about twelve gallons of blood decorating a bedroom. It’s all pretty uneven.
The last half hour of the film follows the supposed reveal of the culprit, though there’s still the inevitable twist. At the risk of ruining it for you (spoiler: I’m about to ruin it for you), the “twist” is so out of the freakin’ blue you can hardly follow it on the first viewing. Even on secondary viewings, it doesn’t flow right or feel built up to.
Basically, we’re led to believe that Ginny is the killer, as we see her, you know, actually killing all these people. There’s information about her brain surgery causing her demented behavior, but it’s needlessly overdone. And by that, I mean, they could have just made it regular brain surgery and I don’t think it would have bothered most members of the audience or their suspension of disbelief. Instead, we’re given some techno-medical mumbo jumbo about a cutting edge new technique involving electric force fields, giant Star Trek machines and magic salamander tails or some such nonsense. A simple “brain surgery did it” would have sufficed.
But they didn’t stop there.
The film would have been just fine if it had ended about five or six minutes early, before the even more complicated “twist” was let loose. In a great scene, Ginny’s father comes home to find all her dead, mutilated friends situated around a dinner table with party hats on, the exhumed corpse of her mother rotting at the head of the table and Ginny-herself bringing in her own birthday cake while humming the Birthday Song. It’s really well-shot and set-up and if the film had ended on that crazy, corpse-filled note everything would’ve been fine.
But then out of the blue they throw in this “AHA! This is how it REALLY happened!” ending where one of the girls, Ann (Tracey E. Bregman), pops up and explains that they’re actually half-sisters and only Ginny didn’t know it and that Ginny’s birth caused her family to fall apart so she started murdering all her friends after chloroforming her over and over and over again (seriously, it’s hilarious) and wearing a Ginny mask that her friend made and JUST STOP. Please.
I can sort of see the need for an additional twist at the conclusion, since the last half hour would have felt way too straight forward and devoid of suspense if Ginny had really been the killer, but if you’re going to throw a batshit insane “gotcha!” moment like that at the end, then you should do a better job of building up to it. Outside of a few cryptic sentences in a flashback and maybe a catty glare from Ann in a couple scenes, there is nothing leading up to that finale.
If the film had just ended ten minutes early I’d have finished my review two paragraphs early and we’d all be a lot happier.