Movies: Happy Birthday To Me (1981)

I feel as though I’ve spoken before about how Canadian horror films tend to be ever so slightly underrated or underseen, with the possible exception of David Cronenberg’s films, obviously. But especially in regards to the slasher subgenre, Canada has been somewhat ahead of the curve, not only being responsible for one of the very first slasher films in the form of 1974’s Black Christmas, which released a full four years before John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween, but also coming up with stellar examples of the subgenre in the wake of Halloween‘s subsequent cultural impact.

While some of these films have finally gotten their due—My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, and Terror Train all have massive cult followings, after all—there’s one Canadian slasher that doesn’t seem to get brought up as much, even though it’s actually one of the best of its kind, an ambitious and twisty murder mystery with some acceptably gory kills, some bigger-name stars involved in its production, and a larger budget than this type of movie would usually merit. I’m talking, of course, about 1981’s Happy Birthday To Me.

The idea for the film was cooked up by producers John Dunning and André Link, who had previously been working on successful erotic movies, but saw the higher profitability potential of the burgeoning horror market. They hired an English professor from the University of Toronto, John Saxton, to put together a script. By this point, Halloween and Friday the 13th had set the standard for slashers going forward, and lots of filmmakers were jumping on the trend of low-budget, high-return horror flicks aimed at the teens-to-twenties demographic and centered around a holiday (New Year’s Evil, Terror Train, To All a Goodnight, Christmas Evil, Mother’s Day) or a special event (Prom Night, Graduation Day, He Knows You’re Alone). The gang came up with a concept focused around a character’s birthday, which they thought would have universal appeal since everyone has a birthday, and cross-pollinated it with the main character also having some kind of brain injury that prevented her from knowing exactly what was going on around her, thus adding another layer of ambiguity and mystery to the plot.

Incidentally, the same production team behind Happy Birthday To Me was also responsible for My Bloody Valentine, which went into pre-production only a week after Happy Birthday wrapped, but was actually released before it to take advantage of Valentine’s Day.

Happy Birthday To Me was helmed by the Oscar-winning British director J. Lee Thompson, known for such classic films as 1961’s The Guns of Navarone and 1962’s Cape Fear. Once the 70s rolled around, he had been getting more into genre fare, having directed the fourth and fifth films in the Planet of the Apes series, and was interested to try his hand at a slasher horror. Also looking for a change of pace was lead actress Melissa Sue Anderson, who attained stardom for her role as Mary Ingalls on the popular Little House on the Prairie TV show, but was looking to get into movies, and specifically into something different from the wholesome role she was most identified with.

Also classing up the cast was iconic Canadian character actor Glenn Ford in a small part as the main character’s psychiatrist; Ford was in loads of big films in Hollywood’s Golden Age, including 1946’s Gilda, 1953’s The Big Heat, and 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, and only a couple of years prior to his turn in Happy Birthday To Me, he had starred as Jonathan Kent in Richard Donner’s Superman. He was reportedly a nightmare to work with on the Happy Birthday set, though, being drunk much of the time and allegedly engaging in fisticuffs with at least one member of the crew. Because of Canadian tax laws, Ford was also paid a much larger salary than his small role would suggest, since the main star of the film—Melissa Sue Anderson—was American and not Canadian.

The rest of the cast were then lesser-known Canadian actors, some of whom went on to greater fame later on: Lawrence Dane would go on to star in Bride of Chucky, for example, while Lesleh Donaldson would become something of a scream queen during the 80s, appearing in 1982’s Deadly Eyes and 1983’s Curtains. Matt Craven, who played Steve, probably went on to the most prolific career, appearing in Jacob’s Ladder (1990), A Few Good Men (1992), Crimson Tide (1995), the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, 2011’s X-Men: First Class, and loads of others right up until the present day.

The story of Happy Birthday To Me is a tad convoluted and has several twists toward the end, the last of which was pretty clearly dreamed up partway through the production because there isn’t any set-up for it, but that’s really just a minor quibble, at least in my opinion. The movie is also significantly longer than most slashers, clocking in at almost two hours, but it never really seems to drag; there’s always something interesting going on.

We’re mainly following a young woman named Virginia (Ginny for short) at a fancy private school called Crawford Academy, which is supposed to be somewhere in Massachusetts (though the movie was largely shot in Montreal and upstate New York). Ginny is a member of the so-called “Top Ten,” a group of wealthy, privileged, popular students who all hang out together, mainly at a pub called The Silent Woman, whose sign features a headless serving girl, which is a tad macabre, to say the least.

At the very beginning of the movie, another one of the Top Ten, Bernadette, is murdered by an unseen killer wearing black gloves. We know right away that the killer is someone the victim knows, because upon escaping from the murderer once, Bernadette runs into someone else who we don’t see, she gives the old, “Oh, it’s you,” routine, then it turns out that this person is of course the killer she thought she had escaped from.

The rest of the gang are gathered back at the Silent Woman, and though they note Bernadette’s absence, they don’t attribute anything sinister to the situation. After they leave the bar, they decide to play “the game,” a thing which they often do apparently; it’s essentially a game of chicken with a rising drawbridge, where all the cars containing the students attempt to jump the gap between the sections of the bridge as they open. On this particular occasion, the car containing Ginny and a few others barely makes it, and Ginny freaks out, running off into the woods.

It turns out that her reaction has to do with the death of her mother in an accident a few years before, though the details of the event don’t become clear until later on. We learn that Ginny was somehow involved in the accident but lost her memory of it completely; we also discover that she has been the subject of an experimental treatment that attempted to stimulate the regrowth of her brain cells through electricity, or something. She’s under the care of a psychiatrist, who is encouraging her to try to regain her repressed memories, but it’s also hinted that the experiment might be messing with her perception of reality.

As the story goes on, a number of red herrings are introduced, such as the nerdy dude who has a pet rat and is really into taxidermy; the overbearing French-Canadian jock who follows Ginny around and climbs in her bedroom window to steal her underwear; and the guy who does a Quasimodo impression and buries a skull from the science lab on campus for a prank while several students are missing. Because these dudes are so obviously set up as weirdos, you just know that they’re not going to turn out to be the killer, but they’re still entertaining diversions.

The kills are also pretty fun, ranging from a weightlifter guy getting his neck crushed by his own barbell, a dude getting his scarf thrown into the running engine of his motorcycle, and the famous kill that appears on the poster of a guy getting shanked through the mouth with a shish-kebab (though it should be noted that the guy on the poster is not actually even in the movie and is a totally different person than the actor who gets kebabed in the film).

Toward the end of the second act, it’s revealed that Ginny was the killer all along…or was she? It certainly does look like she’s the one who stabs the rat guy and stabs the guy with the shish kebab, and as memories of her past begin to be slowly doled out, the audience discovers that four years ago, Ginny’s mom invited all the rich, popular kids from the Academy—all of whom are now dead—to Ginny’s birthday party, but none of them showed up because they all went to the party of another later member of the Top Ten, Ann, who was apparently much richer and more popular than Ginny was. It’s implied, by the way, that Ginny’s mom was maybe kinda trashy and nouveau riche, so the other families in the area were real snobby about accepting her and her daughter.

So a pissed-off Mom puts Ginny in the car and angrily drives to Ann’s house, telling Ginny that she’s going to that party whether she was invited or not, because it’s her birthday. On the way there, though, Ginny’s mom tries to ramp the drawbridge during a storm and doesn’t make it. The car plunges into the water far below (in a stunt that ultimately ended up destroying more than a dozen cars), and though Ginny is able to swim to safety, her mother drowns.

Toward the end of the movie, there’s a great, creepy scene where Ginny’s dad comes across a birthday party that Ginny has set up, with all of her dead friends (and her mother’s rotting corpse) sitting around the table wearing party hats. So we’re led to believe that a combination of finally remembering the accident, and the weird shit the doctors did to Ginny’s brain, made her go completely apeshit and bump off all the Top Ten in revenge for slighting her and causing her mother to get killed.

But then, the movie throws us for a complete loop by first making us think that Ginny had a twin, then revealing that the true killer was actually Ann, wearing an unbelievably realistic mask of Ginny’s face to make everyone think that Ginny was the one perpetrating these crimes. See, it turns out that Ann (who had disappeared earlier in the film but whose body was never found) was actually Ginny’s half sister; Ginny’s father had an affair with Ann’s mom years ago, which caused the destruction of Ann’s family. So Ann came up with this convoluted scheme to dress up as Ginny, drug the actual Ginny so she didn’t remember anything, and kill everybody (including ultimately Ginny herself), then blame Ginny posthumously for the murders. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense really, and that’s because this final plot twist was kinda pulled out of the filmmakers’ butts at the last minute. Originally, Ginny absolutely was supposed to be the killer all along, but evidently Columbia Pictures, who distributed the film, weren’t a fan of that ending, so it was changed very late in the game, which means that if you watch the film a second time with the express purpose of looking for clues hinting at Ann’s involvement, you won’t find them because they aren’t there.

Despite the sort of WTF ending, though, I still really dig Happy Birthday To Me, and it was a slasher I always remembered really fondly from renting the VHS back in the day. The movie is clearly more expensive and better shot than many of its cheapie counterparts, and the acting is a notch above too, though I always thought Melissa Sue Anderson and Sharon Acker (who played Ginny’s mom) come off a tad overwrought. The movie has some fun kills and well-executed gore, and doesn’t wear out its welcome in spite of its longer-than-average runtime. The plot is complex and not all that believable, but to be honest I always just took it in the same spirit as a giallo movie, with all the outlandish twists and turns. It keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure, so I can’t be too mad at it.

While Canadian slashers have gotten some appreciation in modern times, I feel like Happy Birthday To Me still doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, and I hope that it will eventually take its rightful place among the ranks of other beloved Canucksploitation slashers

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


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