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
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. As one of a plethora of Halloween cash-ins to utilise the annual event gimmick, you may be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but the movie is unique more for its haphazard execution, the kind that elevates it above your more standardised slasher fodder. 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-certificate self-parody that had 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 welcome pedigree as our protagonist’s long-suffering psychiatrist. Though he 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 also a story to be told here, one that doesn’t have to rely on gratuitous murder or gimmicky twists — though the movie gives us both in abundance, resulting in the kind of tonal imbalance that left me fascinated throughout. Happy Birthday to Me is jaw-droppingly dissonant. Its characters are relatively rounded, its murder scenes effective for as far as the acting allows, and technically it hits all the right notes, proving genuinely suspenseful for the most part. It is also jarringly absurd, occasionally haphazard, and downright baffling half the time. For some barely identifiable reason, it all works rather wonderfully. Of course, this is a slasher flick we’re talking about, and the critical ceiling is inevitably low, but movies should be judged on what they set out to achieve, and compared with some of the insipid sub-genre nonsense I’ve endured throughout the years, this was a kooky breath of fresh air.
Happy Birthday to Me 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’ll guess who the culprit is. For a while you’ll think you have it sussed. You may even have others convinced. But believe me, by the end of the movie you will hold up your hands and admit that you had absolutely no fucking clue it would end that way because it will be obvious to everyone that you didn’t. The revelation is that underhanded and left-field.
The film may prove cautious where it counts, showing a patience lacking in much of the genre – particularly during the movie’s opening kill, which is long and excruciating with a few false getaways thrown in for good measure – 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 off-kilter it feels like two movies glued awkwardly together, a teen marketing vehicle that can’t decide whether it’s a serious movie or not.
But that’s what makes Happy Birthday to Me 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 in such bad taste you sometimes wonder if you have stumbled upon an entirely different species.
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, though the movie’s title will probably give you something of a hint as to where it’s heading, certainly more than the film itself, which is brazenly deceptive in a manner that may leave you planning a vengeful onslaught of your own. All I’ll say is, if you do manage to somehow finger the culprit you are either in possession of a very inquisitive and highly improbable nature or a die hard Mission Impossible fan. Confused yet? You will be, though I may have a left a clue in there somewhere. A fat lot of good it will do you, I’m sure.
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!