My dear readers, who stick with me through all the weird, nasty, stupid places I take this blog, can any of you think of a better way to mark my 31st birthday than with an unnecessarily long Canadian slasher movie that also turned 31 this year? Of course you cannot, because there is NO BETTER WAY. Besides which, what better day than a birthday to take a long hard look at violent death?
Halloween that does something interesting to seriously up-end one's expectations about the template, or simply does an extremely good, artful job of bringing that template to life, odds are it's from '81.
Our case study for now is Happy Birthday to Me, which on top of being from '81, is promising for another reason: it was made in Canada. And for a reason that I still haven't completely figured out, Canada makes consistently better slasher films than the United States: a little more grounded in human behavior, a bit more aware that if you give the characters more depth and activity than getting high and fucking, they will be more interesting to watch, and thus their violent deaths will have some impact beyond "ewww, that was so cool!"
While there are certainly problems with Happy Birthday to Me, some of them looming, this much at least cannot be taken away from it: it's not just more of the same tacky, cheap, bullshit. At 110 minutes, it's the longest '80s slasher film that I am personally aware of, and in the form of Glenn Ford - just three years removed from his "we cast you because you are an icon with gravitas" role in Superman - it boasts one of the most legitimate actors to ever darken his CV with one of the things; it was the sole true horror film directed by J. Lee Thompson, whose late career is dotted with a great deal of crap, but who was a favorite director of Gregory Peck's at one point (among their collaborations was the thriller masterpiece Cape Fear); all of these things tell us that Happy Birthday to Me started out life with ambition to be more than just "horny teens act dumb, die". To maybe even be a serious thriller-type film made on a slasher model.
It's not that - the genie was out of the bottle by 1981, and there was no "serious thriller" to be salvaged from the body count plot formula, no matter how clearly the movie fancies itself a bit more clever and deep than e.g. Friday the 13th, Part 2 - but Happy Birthday to Me is anyways a great deal more complex than it has any right or reason to be. In fact, with its emphasis on mystery and warped clinical psychology, its frankly nonsensical ending, and the way that the killer is depicted, in the first half, as nothing but a pair of black gloves poking out of a trench coat, it is one of the most overt riffs on the Italian gialli in the history of North American slasherdom, lacking only the stylistic excess to make the comparison final. A marriage of the slasher and the giallo, then, and more than fascinating on just those grounds; but the film isn't nearly done playing tricks on us.
After an opening that was already, by that time, slasher movie SOP - a girl, Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson) is stalked and eventually murdered by an unseen figure she recognises as a friend - the film introduces us to the Top Ten, the most popular and richest kids at a local, highly prestigious private academy: not all of them are equally important, and the one of them is already dead, though nobody knows that yet, but it's clear even before she arrives that Virginia "Ginny" Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) is our Final Girl, not least because "virgin" is part of her given name (Something In The Water alert: F13, Part 2, released in the exact same month, also had a Final Girl named Ginny). Not to belabor a plot that, despite its length is lower on incident than on developing things slowly: the others in the Top Ten introduce Ginny to their favorite game, playing chicken on an opening drawbridge, and this triggers something horrifying in her brain, though what it is, she can't quite place. The rest of the movie has her working through a sudden flare-up of long-repressed memories with Dr. David Faraday (Ford), while members of the Top Ten start dying, one by one, and although the local authorities are deeply concerned by the sudden disappearances of the children of some of the town's most important families, they can't make much headway on the case, given that there are no bodies to be found, anywhere.
It doesn't sound like much, but it's actually quite effective, all things considered: the way that it's played as a mystery is shockingly effective, given how skillfully Thompson and the screenwriting team of John Saxton & Peter Jobin & Timothy Bond weave in red herrings, some of which are stupidly obvious: a giant fish-eye closeup of resident geek Alfred (John Blum) could only mean that he's a false suspect, for example. But I have to say, though I came awfully close to getting it right, a single bit of artful misdirection - a P.O.V. shot that would seem to rule out a certain character as the killer, but ends up doing no such thing, and does it fairly - tossed me on exactly the wrong track. It's not Hitchcock, but it's cunning and effective in ways that slasher films oughtn't be, and that's without including the fascinating, strange material about Ginny's fragmentary memories, which clearly have something to do with the current murders, though Ginny herself can't figure out what on earth that might be.
I'm going to try very hard not to spoil things, because Happy Birthday to Me did something that virtually no slasher film ever has since I started paying close attention to them: it caught me entirely off guard. After being so careful to reveal nothing about the killer, the filmmakers identify that person at the 69-minute mark, which is already unexpected, structurally - that's a last-reel sort of moment, not a mid-film moment - in addition to tricking me (something I would not expect it to do for everybody: in retrospect, it seems like it should have been, and maybe was, completely obvious). This completely changes all of the texture of the back half of the movie, not necessarily for the better, but surely not for the worse: it adds a bizarre, explicable but no less deranged, pscyhological element that is entirely divorced from sex, refreshingly, and changes the direction of the mystery from who? to why? in a completely satisfying way. And it's all pretty great, and you have just finally pieced together the clues and been, in my case, absolutely floored by how well it all fits and how wonderful a movie-psycho the film has depicted (in grand giallo tradition, for all its fixation on psychology and psychiatry, there's no more than an accidental resemblance to real psychology here), and then comes a tinkered-with ending: fearing that the mid-film twist would set up an expectation for a closing twist as well, the producers went on ahead and stuck one in, but it makes absolutely no sense - in fact, it manages to make no sense at the first swerve, and then make even less sense at the final reveal - and betrays every damn thing that the previous 40 minutes were building up to, in addition to rendering the title - which has a fairly hair-raising meaning otherwise - completely pointless. To be honest, the only way I can feel good about Happy Birthday to Me at all is to simply pretend that, since I know how it was supposed to end, that it actually ends that way; the official ending as presented in the final cut would otherwise make the entire experience horrendously moronic.
Now, that's quite a lot that I like, you may have noticed; but since this is a 1980s slasher movie, we know it can't be as simple as that, and there are many problems beyond the script, and Thompson's whip-smart direction (which extended to flinging around literal buckets of gore: though the film was ravaged by the censors, it still has a couple of truly playful Grand Guignol moments). The most pressing of these, I was going to say, was the abysmal score, which sounds like disco's hungover morning after it made love to one of the airier prog rock bands; but then I found that the version I watched (the 2004 Sony DVD) replaces all the music but the song over the end credits, and it felt unfair to judge.
What that leaves us with, though, is a by and large unforgivably bad cast: Anderson is neither particularly good nor bad as far as leading actresses in slasher movies go, but she's much near the top: most of the other kids are some degree of cartoon-character annoying or another, Lawrence Dane, as Ginny's father, is such a mewling non-entity that it's offensive, and even the great Glenn Ford himself is so obviously embarrassed by the material that what gives isn't a performance, so much as a full-body apology. The characters in a slasher, even in a character-driven one, aren't the point obviously, and the deaths, which are just as garish as the famous poster promises (though it identifies the wrong names with each cause of death), make up for it, as does the solid handling of the story - though 110 minutes is quite too long for the material, and it's hard not to keep one's attention from wandering, especially in the "getting to know you" material at the beginning. But even a film like this needs somebody who seems like a real person in order to keep things on target, and Happy Birthday to Me is just one flat-to-unlikable character after another. Everything that goes right is enough to make this one of the better slasher films of the '80s, but it needs a little something more to round the corner to being completely and unmistakably "good".
Body Count: 8, a high number for the era, though I would say that only four live up to the poster's promise of "six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see", and even that is giving it credit for coming so much earlier than the many, many equally bizarre murders that slasher fans would, in fact, end up seeing.