First, there was Halloween which ignited the slasher genre in 1978 and in 1980 Friday the 13th solidified the formula of the unknown assailant killing large quantities of teenagers. Many studios wanted to capitalize on this craze so theaters were flooded with a slew of horror movies made on the cheap that promised gore and titillation in that order. Because the hits so far had taken place during a recognizable holiday, that oddly became a selling point. My Bloody Valentine, New Year’s Evil and Mother’s Day are just a few of movies exploiting the subgenre, greatly reaching to somehow shoehorn a holiday into the motivation behind a maniac’s murderous crusade. Happy Birthday To Me was Columbia Pictures contender for the genre (though they also released the less memorable Graduation Day that same month). Co-produced with Canadian Film Development Corporation, this film has distinguished itself from its many festive siblings partly due to its Canadian nature. Happy Birthday is more cut from a 70’s cloth as director J. Lee Thompson is attempting to make a psychological thriller. It’s in no way successful in this endeavor but is able to provide what the poster brags as “six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see.”
If you hadn’t seen the poster before starting the movie you may find yourself quite puzzled to how a birthday factors into the plot. The movie kicks off with your classic first victim, in this case, a popular high school senior Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson), who is strangled in her car while on the way to convene with her friends at a local bar. Where I have to assume the Canadian nature seeps in is that these 18-year-olds can spend the evening getting hammered at a pub. In general, the fundamentals of this town is quite perplexing. Being American, it took an exorbitant amount of context clues to inform me these twenty-something actors were meant to be in high school. It doesn’t help that they attend a boarding school (although some like Ginny live with their parents) and that they could legally drink. It wasn’t until I witnessed the reckless behavior of the students leaving the bar and racing across a rising drawbridge that I hoped only high schoolers would have that little understanding of mortality. The deadly game of drawbridge jumping which causes one car to collide into the street destroying the front bumper proves reason enough to dislike the ill-fated youth as they the worst kind of privileged rich white kids that we know and hate today. Glad to hear that stereotype is international. This group titled The Top 10 (and not for their grades) are the victims that we’re going to spend this run time with which is kind of a bummer. These are people who bullied you in grade school but because of mandatory character development we have to listen to their relationship woes and weak attempts at being charming.
Our protagonist is Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson) who has been repatriated into this circle after an extended absence due to a tragic accident involving her mother, told through flashback which are slowly doled out amidst the narrative. That unfolding story is the more 70’s aspect as Ginny is unraveling as she remembers all these traumatic events. But her backstory and struggle with mental stability often feel detached from the bloodbath her friends are undergoing. Unlike the man in a mask stalkers, this is a whodunit plot as established with Bernadette’s kill when she sees the shadowy figure and sighs “oh it’s you”. You’re immediately being baited to Sherlock Holmes your way through the film. I know I’ve praised Scream enough but Craven pulls this trope off so seamlessly where you’re never over thinking who’s the killer. Partially because it could be rando in a mask but also it never draws too much attention to itself. There’s a whole fake out with boyfriend Billy Loomis who is the obvious suspect then there’s no evidence linking him but in the end, of course, it’s Billy. Happy Birthday To Me should be renamed Red Herrings because in every scene the movie is trying to convince you it’s someone else. The only identifier of the killer is black leather gloves so we constantly see characters wearing the same pair as if that’s trendy. Everyone is suspicious like nerdy Alfred (Jack Blum) who has a molded head of the first victim which thanks to movie magic is at one point the real actress’ head and jock Steve (Matt Craven) is seen covering up a school issued scarf in an embankment, later dug up to reveal a skull stolen from the science department. While we’re supposed to be weary of all of those teens, Ginny’s breakdown is equally suspect as all the attention spent on her trauma is an obvious set up for a multiple personality psychotic break.
Through the labored dialogue and overt misdirection, you are delivered these truly fascinating deaths. For my money, barbell to the neck takes the cake but it’s heightened by how ridiculous the scene around it is which includes Greg (Richard Rebiere) lifting weights and a friend (later known to be female) enters his room and he is not only unfazed but asks her to assist him as if this is a normal interaction. Where I will give leeway to horror films that slog along is that if it produces exciting violence and a worthwhile climax, I’ll give it a pass. Happy Birthday To Me earns that by culminating at the birthday party we’ve all been waiting. In a chilling scene, Ginny’s father returns to his abandoned lake house in search of his daughter only to find a table lit only by candles surrounded by all the mutilated corpses as the perpetrator sings the titular song. If you didn’t think the movie was outlandish enough, after the father’s throat is slit, the final reveal comes in the form of a latex mask rip off a la Mission Impossible where the actual killer is forgettable Ann (Tracey E Bregman) who holds a grudge against Ginny strong enough that it’s worth murdering all her friends for. It’s so impractical and elaborate that you can’t help but respect this dumb, ballsy move. It’s a motivation akin to Billy Loomis who hates Syd for her mother’s past discretions but at least in Scream Billy’s broken home life is subtly made aware to the audience. Ann throws this explanation to us all at once which considering the red herrings we’ve sat through, it’s a feat that this never came up.
It’s probably a good thing this movie has remained niche, kept alive only by horror junkies like myself willing to sit through an entire movie for a handful of unique deaths. There’s tremendous special effects makeup when you linger on each mangled face at the dinner table. Otherwise, this is a movie that is both overstuffed with characters (one of the girls doesn’t even die due to a technicality) and dense with filler as there are long stretches of time between kills. Learning of J Lee Thompson’s filmography there is a vested interest in experimentation. He includes squeamish footage of Ginny undergoing brain surgery post-accident presenting the idea that she could be having out of body experiences related to this testing. It’s ultimately a fruitless notion since Ann was chloroforming Ginny rather than self-induced blackouts. But seeing this movie paired with Thompson’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud about a man’s vivid dreams which recount his past life, there’re some nuggets of ideas concerning what our brains are capable of. Maybe a deeper search into his work will prove a successful attempt but so far they fall flat. It’s a birthday party you should rain check.