Synopsis: You’re invited to the bloodiest party of the year.
Welcome to upscale Crawford Academy, where everyone – especially new student Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson of Little House On The Prairie) – wants to be part of the school’s most popular clique. But now somebody has begun butchering the group’s members. Could a deadly accident from Ginny’s past be connected to the brutal killings? And as her 18th birthday approaches, will Ginny be the guest of honor at the most horrific party of all?
Happy Birthday to Me 6.75
eyelights: the lovely girls. the staging of the ending.
eyesores: the pointlessly heavy-handed red herrings. the characters’ nonsensical behaviour.
“You’d be proud of me now, mother. All the kids like me.”
‘Happy Birthday to Me’ is a 1981 slasher horror film by J. Lee Thompson, of ‘Cape Fear’, ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes‘ and ‘Battle for the Planet of the Apes‘ fame. It is set at a college and it follows a popular clique nicknamed the “Top Ten” as they party and, gradually, get knocked off one by one by a mysterious killer.
Although it falls into the gimmicky horror genre that was popular at the time, following the success of ‘Halloween‘ and, later, ‘Friday the 13th‘, the birthday theme isn’t actually exploited until the end – unlike many of its predecessors, it doesn’t try to tie it to the killings from the onset. It’s only foe the finale that it matters.
The killings themselves are frequently gimmicky, however, as is typical of the genre, people die in outlandish ways that sometimes aren’t even possible – just to make an impression. It’s not especially gory, but it can be brutal: the first murder had the victim struggling, scratching and kicking the inside of the car she was trapped in.
In many respects, ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ is fairly typical of the genre. What truly distinguishes it is the way in which it explores its protagonist’s backstory and eventual breakdown, taking it clearly out of the slasher genre for moments at a time – particularly at the end, where we are taken into Virginia’s growing madness bit by bit.
There are tons of red herrings, with Virgina being stalked by a local boy, her dad acting slightly creepy, the nerd acting erratically, …etc. The staging is also a bit heavy-handed: In trying to lead us in the wrong direction, Thompson had the actors act strangely for no reason, or set-up scenes in such a way that it wasn’t realistic.
This caused me to disconnect completely because I knew each time that what we were seeing was complete BS, that we were being mislead. I just sat there trying to make sense of the scenes, wondering why a character would behave the way he/she did if they weren’t the killer – case-in-point, Alfred in his room and Rudy in the bell tower.
‘Happy Birthday to Me’ lacks subtlety to such a degree that it seemed clear from the onset who the killer would be – despite all the misdirection. It was just a matter of time before it was to be confirmed – except that the ending was changed at the last minute during the production, scuttling the obvious finale for a slice of utter nonsense.
It’s too bad, too, because the ending was otherwise the strongest part of the picture, as it explored Virginia’s dementia and past more fully, explaining the accident she had and the experimental treatments that followed. It also set up her birthday party, which I thought was a delightfully morbid sight and a nicely twisted payoff.
What matters in scary movies is whether or not we care about the victims, and there were little touches that I felt contributed to making the characters feel real, including the way they interacted (although the incestuous nature of group was questionable). They could be jack-asses, but that didn’t seem entirely out of character here.
In particular, I was impressed with such things as having Virginia go into a room to get something on a shelf, and not caring that other things fell off, allowing them to tumble down to the ground. I’ve seen people who behave in such a careless way and I liked that this was allowed to remain in the picture instead of polishing every gesture.
It’s probably stuff like this that kept me interested, even as the picture’s heavy-handedness (even its derivative music is overdone) had me rolling my eyes; the picture is a mixture of skilled storytelling and jarring Grand Gignol, which unfortunately means that it likely doesn’t satisfy either of its intended audiences.
‘Happy Birthday to Me’ is hardly the worst of its ilk, thankfully, but it’s no great cinema either. And it doesn’t even exploit its theme fully, meaning that it doesn’t even have the minimal draw of being warped birthday counter-programming. I think I’ll have to check out ‘Bloody Birthday’ to see if that could maybe do the trick instead.
Mwahahaha. Happy birthday!
Post scriptum: please note that ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ was released on home video with an altered soundtrack. I don’t know how much of a difference it makes, but the original version has only been made available on DVD and BD since 2009. If this matters to you, if you’re a purist, please consider this information before picking it up.
Date of viewing: December 27, 2015