Dir. J. Lee Thompson
In the run up to her 18th birthday, Ginny begins to experience bizarre blackouts and flashbacks of a prior traumatic event. These coincide with the gruelling and morbidly inventive murders of her friends. Has Ginny finally lost it after experiencing something unspeakably traumatic a year ago? Is it someone from her past back for revenge for something she can’t remember? As her friends continue to get cut up, Ginny must work fast to remember her recent past and unmask the killer before its too late…
Released in the wake of the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Happy Birthday To Me is a typical example of the myriad slasher movies unleashed during the early Eighties. With every new title (usually involving an anniversary/holiday/date) stories became more slight and unimaginative and the main raison d’être, as established by Friday the 13th, was the various death scenes; boasting all manner of splattery SFX, they were the real draw of the genre. Happy Birthday To Me is really no different in that regard, it sticks to the conventions of the slasher genre like flies on a rotting carcass. Opening with a fairly intense, if rather clichéd scene in which a young student is strangled by an unseen, black-leather glove clad assailant hiding in the backseat of her car, Happy Birthday To Me gets off to a typical enough start. And it doesn’t get much more original than that; though there are some rather memorable, if totally fucking ridiculous death scenes featuring motorbikes, gym weights and shish kebabs.
It works a little too hard to indicate that any one of the wispily-drawn characters could be the killer, and from time to time various characters will have a random menacing expression on their face or say something that could be construed as threatening. We often cut away from a scene and are led to believe one of the characters has been killed, only for them to show up later. People show up ‘dead’, only for it to be revealed as a practical joke. Yes, it is as tedious as it sounds. As a straight slasher it does at times have an appealing gothic ambience, particularly during the mist-enrobed graveyard scenes and morbidly atmospheric finale in which Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson) attends a party where the gathered guests are the mutilated corpses of her mates. At other times however, it adopts the guise of a tacky soap-opera. While there is indeed some camp humour in the scenes where Ginny’s mother necks booze like there’s no tomorrow and has a mascara-eviscerating hissy-fit at the entrance to a grand mansion during a rainstorm, it just adds to the overall unevenness of proceedings. Too much time is spent with the group of friends as they banally goof around, and there is little tension in the build up to the murders.
Where it is successful is in its anti-upper class outlook. Ginny and her friends all come from wealthy families and spend much of their time being obnoxious and rude to other people. At one point the prim headmistress of their private college reprimands Ginny and quips: “Think you can sneer at others? You think that because you’re rich you can sneer at people who have had to work hard, people who have had to fight for a decent education? That you can just do as you please?”
Also of interest is the increasingly ambiguous depiction of Final Girl, Ginny. Initially sweet natured and demure, Ginny eventually begins to change through the course of the film, her mood becoming more volatile – the catalyst being when she and her friends race over a drawbridge in their cars as it lifts up, jumping the ever-widening gap. When the car she is a passenger in makes the jump, she completely flips out and runs home, via a moody graveyard, natch, to say hey to her dead mother. Throughout the film she has increasingly lengthy blackouts and flashbacks to the prior year, when she and her booze-sozzled mother were in a car accident, resulting in her mother’s demise. She also has memories of the experimental brain surgery she underwent; cue unsavoury and lingering shots of the operation. This all serves to throw doubt on her hitherto upstanding nature. To begin with, all the intrigue really enhances the narrative and stop-start pacing. Who is Ginny? What happened to her? Why is she in therapy? However, it is all bogged down in repetition until the pace finally picks up towards the climax and things really get going.
There is something about Ginny that ensures she’ll never be in the running for my favourite Final Girl. Maybe it’s the way in which she’s made out to be bat-shit crazy, or that she’s just too vulnerable, or too much of a push over. She shows no signs of resourcefulness or strength, and while there is some tension derived from her plight later on, I never really rooted for her as much as I did the likes of Laurie, Alice or Nancy.
Shameless in its conventionality and ludicrousness, and brazen enough to pull off the ‘what-the-fuck-ending’ it assaults/cheats us with, Happy Birthday To Me is a moderately entertaining ‘old-school’/vintage slasher which makes attempts at originality with its wildly implausible twists and turns, moments of gothic horror, macabre humour and gruesome kills. And more red herrings than the National Library’s Agatha Christie collection. But it’s just not enough, and it winds up being limper than a corpse’s wrist pre-rigor mortis. To add insult to injury, director J. Lee Thompson’s previous films include the masterful Cape Fear (1962), and, erm, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).