Friday, June 8, 2012
Happy Birthday to Me (1981) Horror
Happy Birthday to Me (1981) - A psychological slasher film starring the lovely Melissa Sue Anderson where she plays a traumatized teen whose friends are disappearing daily. It is a large mystery surrounded by her strange blackouts and the returning memories of the accident that killed her mother. Now I missed this film when it came to theaters back in the day. At 17 with hormones flooding my system I am sure an all grown up Mary Ingalls (Little House on the Prairie) would have attracted me to the theaters. Living in a house of sisters, I did see many episodes of the Little House. I hated that show so I probably skipped it out of spite. Even to this day when I saw Anderson was in this movie I shamefully wondered if I would get to see her boobies. So sad :( I would like to think of myself as so much more mature than that. In case your wondering the answer is no. You do not get to see her boobies, in fact this film is very PG-13 and really tame. Originally when presented to the MPAA this movie got an X rating because of the violent and gruesome murders, and the scenes of brain surgery, it was cut significantly to get to an R rating, but whether the times have changed or I am just use to blood and guts I don't even see it as an R.
The film itself was not too bad, when I read the synopsis I thought for sure it was an early eighties slasher I could figure it out even without watching. I figured they would have Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson) blacking out, means she was killing her friends. At the end of the film she would come out of it and realize just what she was doing and then the police would arrest her. Boy was I wrong! This film is just one big misdirection with a twist so twisty the smartest of film goers will not see it coming. Then the twist has a twist and we are left wondering what just happened.
Getting ahead here though, the film starts by introducing the idea of the elite kids at the Crawford Academy. We follow Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson) as she heads out to meet her friends at the local pub. I take it must be college because they are hanging at a bar. On this night Bernadette does not make it to the party, in her car she is attacked from behind by a strangler. She struggles on her back kicking the door open and then smartly playing dead before a final surge frees her into the parking garage. It is a well done scene that feels organic in the blocking. Other than the leather gloves of the killer neither we or the victim see much. As she hides and creeps we see some point of view of the killer and another near miss before Bernadette turns to someone in a green coat. She recognizes the person asking for help and seeming relieved when the person raises a black gloved hand with a straight razor. The demise of Bernadette is complete.
Beside Virginia and Bernadette the core group consists of Jock Greg (Richard Rebiere), soccer player Rudi (David Eisner), Steve (Matt Craven), exchange student Etienne (Michel-Rene Labelle) and dork Alfred (Jack Blum). A lot of the girls in the group are unfortunately less defined as characters and could be interchangable, Amelia (Lisa Langlois), Maggie (Lenore Zann) and Virginia's best friend Ann Thomerson (Tracey E. Bregman). This is the cool group kids and they are rich and entitled.
J. Lee Thompson brings a tension and pace that is really nice. A veteran director of such films as The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Greek Tycoon (1978) as well as a couple of the worst Planet of the Apes films, Battle and Conquest, he may not be the greatest director but he certainly knows how to put a sequence together. The writer John C. W. Saxton wrote some pulp besides this including The Class of 1984 (1982), Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975) and Blackout (1978) does a decent job but save way too much for the end without properly foreshadowing it. After viewing if you go back you can pick some areas where he tried to drop hints but really a clearer job needed to be done to keep the ending from being such a WTF moment. He should get some credit though he did not have to have a character explain the entire story as is true with so many poor script. There is the explaining of the blackouts and the reason the killer has for it but overall he avoided much of that. We call this the Scooby Doo ending and it is horrible. Reading on IMDB I see that one of the trivia items is that the script was originally written without the twist at the end and that it was added later. This explains why there is no build up to the finale and the need to tell the story in flashback synopsis.
There are other problems with this script that really can't be overlooked. One is the real lack of a police investigation when kids start disappearing. Sure questions are asked but things seem rather relaxed considering at one point five different teens have disappeared in a week. In fact even the students, the main characters are seemingly oblivious to the frightening realization that their group is shrinking. The sense of urgency never seems to meet the events in the film. They just go about their lives, classes and partying and switching partners. It is all very strange, at least it makes sense for the main character but for the rest it is ridiculous. Another is the stupid red herring in having the killer and Alfred have the same coat. It is so obvious that since everyone talks about how he is so strange and that he is never around when the killer is on the prowl that there is no way he could be the killer. It is so cliche to do this and never will the average viewer think it possible that the herring is the killer. Hell it could be that the writer is just smarter than me and Alfred is there so you won't notice the real killer is not around at the same times. Lastly the final scene where everything is revealed, there is the killer needing to explain what happened in the film. It is a pet peeve that I can't stand when the movie has to be explained at the end because the script held so much back. Not only does this script hold tons back but the lack of clues to the possibility of the ending just failed. You are left really feeling a bit cheated because the twist and the twist on the twist are so poorly foreshadowed.
The kills are a slit throat, a motorcycle wheel to the face, a weight lifting demise, the use of garden shears, skewer to the face, tub drowning and more.
The subtext surrounding the motivations of the characters have to do with old money versus new money, infidelity and revenge for a broken marriage. Like I said before this part of the film is a bit weak but there is is you have to deal with it. When Virginia does remember the accident where her Mom (Sharon Acker) was drown you do understand. Originally a girl from the wrong side of the tracks she resented the wealthy old money families for not accepting her when she married well. When she is snubbed and Virginia is snubbed Mom freaks and causes a scene at Ann's parents house before driving drunkenly onto the bridge where she loses her life. It takes most of the movie for these memories to come back to our lead. At this point we already think she is the killer and seeing her humiliation because of the scene her Mom makes only reenforces that she could hate the rich kids.
Helped through the film by her therapist Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) there is a secondary storyline about a risky brain surgery that was tried on Virginia. He guides her through her trauma after the accident and as her memory return. It is was a smart way to get you thinking that Virginia was the killer, accident, no memories, blackouts and if the original ending had stood that would have been it to my disappointment. Luckily someone noticed this and flipped the switch on the end of the film.
Overall I liked this film, it has its flaws as I have explained, but it is a decent attempt is a tame one at a revenge slasher movie. Poor Virginia is the real loser in this one. She did nothing to create the problems that caused her Mother's death, her traveling Father all but abandons her. Prior to the accident she is not in with the "Top Ten" the cool group and that causes her grief. Although She was only is a bra, this was something for the Melissa Sue Anderson squeaky clean image. Better yet seeing her smoking a joint and making out with a boy was even more shocking. In the end she will be the one in jail and it really was not her doing. So give this movie a look, it is not the best but it is not a total waste of time either.
Rating (5.9) 5.0 and up are recommended, some movies just more recommended than others.