Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

Rated R

Score: 3 out of 5

All I wanted to watch for my birthday was a good birthday-themed horror movie. And while I certainly got what I was looking for, I wasn't expecting Happy Birthday to Me, one of the many films to cash in on the post-Halloween slasher boom, to be as bonkers as it was, especially as it roared to a conclusion straight out of a daytime soap opera. While it's ridiculously uneven in the writing department, the fact that it was being rewritten as it was filmed obvious at even the slightest glance, its solid, uproarious kills and its big third-act trip to Crazy Town easily elevate it into the "camp classic" department. It may not be one of the greats, but fans of classic slashers will find a lot to love here.

At the prestigious Crawford Academy prep school, the Top Ten are a clique of ten of the school's elite students, meeting regularly at a local pub and drag racing their cars at night like bored rich kids tend to do. One of them, Virginia "Ginny" Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson), survived a car accident on her birthday several years ago that claimed her mother's life and left her with brain damage, and while an experimental procedure and therapy from Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) helped fix her head, she still has trouble remembering events before the accident, and routinely suffers from blackout spells. Just as her birthday starts coming up, various members of the Top Ten find themselves going "missing" (i.e. dead), and nobody knows who the culprit is. Is it Alfred, the token weirdo of the Top Ten? Do Ginny's blackout spells have something to do with it? Is it Ginny's mother's ghost, angry about the rest of the Top Ten not coming to Ginny's birthday party the night of the accident?

The big reveal of just what the hell is going on is something that I can't bring myself to spoil, partly because the sheer ridiculousness of it must be seen to be believed, partly because it comes completely out of nowhere and is an utter cheat on the audience, and partly because seriously, this shit is wack. It is not something that should've worked half as well as it does, relying on sudden back-to-back twists and reveals that weren't even hinted at prior to the big reveal. It's an ending comparable to the one from Scream 3, but rather than completely derail the plot, it somehow elevates it. Not into something good, mind you; if you're looking for logic, you won't find it here. Rather, it pushes what had been, until then, a fairly average whodunit slasher mystery into the rarefied "so bad it's good" arena. Never does it wink at the audience in acknowledgment of the outlandish goings-on; rather, it just lets it speak for itself, almost as though the director (J. Lee Thompson, best known for making Cape Fear -- yes, really) took the film seriously. The sheer commitment this film has to its own kookiness at the end, refusing to run from it and instead daring itself to see how far it can go, makes it into a beacon of over-the-top camp that, at one memorable point (you'll know it when you see it), literally felt like an exceptionally violent episode of Scooby-Doo.

Not like the rest of the film doesn't do its part in that regard, either. The kills are the other highlight here, as the killer, his/her face kept out of frame the entire time, uses a scarf, dumbbells, a straight razor, a motorcycle engine, garden shears, and as seen on the poster, a shish-ke-bab in creative, crowd-pleasing ways that, more often than not, go far beyond the usual hack-and-stab. The carnage we see is bloody, punctuated with special effects that are used sparingly (reports of fights with the MPAA have been long-denied but long-rumored) yet still pack a punch, and even what we don't see sounds and feels painful. The film is fairly long, clocking in at around 110 minutes, but somehow, its soapy, twisting plot kept me intrigued all the way to the utterly outrageous finish, if only because I was curious to see just where it would go next. The actual victims aren't particularly memorable, with only Ginny, her mother, and her friends Alfred and Ann leaving much of an impression; most of the Top Ten were little more than cannon fodder, while veteran actor Glenn Ford was slumming it as Dr. Faraday. Melissa Sue Anderson got a loving shot in her bra early on, meant plainly to show off the fact that the eighteen-year-old star was no longer the little girl from Little House on the Prairie, but the leering of the camera aside, she acquitted herself fairly well (though not spectacularly), especially when she had to take part in the festivities at the end.

The Bottom Line

This is a film whose real creators, Canadian schlockmeisters John Dunning and André Link, knew full well what they were doing, making a campy, over-the-top slasher bonanza that breaks its own rules but does so with enough panache and flair that it turns back around and becomes enjoyable again. This is one for slasher fans who are looking to cut loose and chill with a film that's defiantly mindless, climbing a mountain of absurdity and taking a long, enjoyable sled ride down.

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