Tagline: John will never eat shish kebab again.
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Writers: John Saxton, Peter Jobin, Timothy Bond
Starring: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker, Frances Hyland, Tracey E. Bregman, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lenore Zann, David Eisner
R | 1h 50min | Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Budget: CAD 3,500,000 (estimated)
Happy Birthday to Me is a unique entry in an infamously uninventive sub-genre.
Then Canada’s highest grossing movie, many of its positives are purposeful, others not so much, but even its patchy moments are unique in their own right, making this one of the superior efforts in the slasher canon.
Made before the genre slipped into the kind of post-cert self-parody that has no use for genuine acting, the movie stars Little House in the Prairie’s Melissa Sue Anderson, her angelic image proving quite the juxtapose, while legendary actor Glenn Ford – at this point deep into alcoholism – adds some very welcome pedigree as our protagonist’s long-suffering psychiatrist, who really should have a word with his patient’s friends and their wild stuntman endeavours.
Enlisting familiar and experienced faces, this is a movie first and foremost, retaining the slow-building tension of the sub-genre’s earlier efforts, with a cast of characters who are perhaps even overdeveloped. There is even a story to be told here, one that doesn’t have to rely on gratuitous murder or gimmicky twists, although the movie gives us both in abundance, resulting in the kind of tonal imbalance you rarely find. Its characters are relatively rounded, its murder scenes excruciating for as far as the acting allows, and technically it hits all the right notes, proving genuinely suspenseful for the most part.
It also brings something completely fresh to the table, substituting the escaped mental patient for not only a teenage killer, but a beautiful, female teenage killer, and if you think I’ve given something away about the antagonist’s identity in writing as much, think again. If you have never seen this film, there is absolutely no way you will guess who the culprit is, although for the most part you will think you have is sussed. You may even lie that you did know, at least initially, but by the end of the movie you will hold up your hands and admit that you had absolutely no f*cking clue it would end that way, because it will be obvious to everyone that you didn’t.
Happy Birthday to Me may prove cautious where it counts, showing a patience lacking in much of the genre – particularly when delivering a series of rather admirable set-pieces – but it is also wildly overblown, chocked with an overabundance of red herrings, with the kind of triple twist that will leave you flabbergasted beyond mortal comprehension. In many ways, the movie’s technical competence and emphasis on characterisation are completely at odds with its other components, some of which are so overblown you feel like this is two movies glued awkwardly together, a marketing vehicle that can’t decide whether it’s a serious movie or not.
But that is what makes it so special. We have craft and suspense and a cast who weren’t just plucked from the high school yearbook of some genetically-superior neverland, but we also have the kind of intolerable melodrama that makes a one-hundred-minute movie feel twenty minutes too long. This is even more incredible when you consider that the film’s gloriously protracted death scenes, which take up around a third of its running time, work so well that they practically fly by, while a series of ungodly student pranks, executed with the deft professionalism of a team of practical effects experts, are of such bad taste you sometimes wonder if you have stumbled onto an entirely different species.
Gore hounds will love this one, but they will also appreciate the manner of the build, especially regarding the movie’s opening kill, which is long and excruciating with a few false getaways thrown in for good measure. The nature of the movie’s kills are pretty damn graphic too, more so since there actually seems to be a point to proceedings. Add to this the occasional porn riff and a POV peeping Tom and fans will be more than satisfied with the degree of sleaze on offer.
But this is more than just a savvy exercise in teenage marketing. Decapitation pranks and ill-conceived James Bond-style stunts may seem just a little tasteless given the movie’s often serious nature, but there is something of a dramatic theme as protagonist Virginia Wainright (Melissa Sue Anderson) mourns the loss of her mother following a freak accident she herself survived, often visiting her grave with a seeming inability to let go. She also experiences explicit flashbacks as she attempts to uncover a long-suppressed moment in her life that will ultimately lead to her gimmicky fate, and a gloriously macabre finale reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s more surreal moments.
That’s as far as I’ll go in terms of plot, although the movie’s title will probably give you something of a hint as to where it’s heading, certainly more than the film itself, and if you manage to somehow finger the culprit you are either in possession of a very inquisitive and highly improbable nature or a diehard Mission Impossible fan.
The scene in which a boy’s face is dragged into the speeding wheel of a motocross bike is the most creative, a doctor’s bludgeoning with a poker to the skull the most brutal, but a sequence in which our killer adds weights to a press bar and watches as their victim slowly succumbs to the pressure is perhaps the most intriguing, while the bone-crunching consequences are sure to leave you cringing.
Most Absurd Moment
During a routine ride home, the film’s teenagers get into a rather ludicrous game of one-upmanship, descending into 007 territory as a car leaps almost fatally over a parting drawbridge, landing with the reckless abandon of a token police chief attempting to curtail Bond’s secret service antics.
Where on Earth did that come from?!
Staying true to the movie’s erratic tone, Happy Birthday to Me‘s tagline refers to a character who doesn’t actually appear in the movie, while the actor promoted as the victim of the infamous shish kebab death is someone else entirely.
Most Absurd Dialogue
After perhaps the most astonishingly random twist in the entire genre, one in which our supposed heroine pulls off a latex mask to reveal that she is in fact Virginia’s friend, Ann (Tracey E. Bregman), and not her twin sister as was first suggested, our stealthy killer offers some rather boastful exposition.
Ann Thomerson: I dressed like you, walked like you. I even talked like you.
Quite the achievement!
Ludicrous, well-made, melodramatic, suspenseful, graphic, admirable, sleazy and intelligent: these are just some of the words that can be used to describe this heady brew of tonal contradictions. But the word that first springs to mind is Unique, and Happy Birthday to Me is most definitely that.