Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

Directed by:
J. Lee Thompson

Melissa Sue Anderson took a reprieve from the wholesome Little House on the Prairie TV series to star in this poorly-paced and structured slasher. Virginia Wainwright has a very troubled past. She was involved in a tragic car accident that killed her mother, left her seriously injured and put her in a coma. At her father's (Lawrence Dane) behest, doctors used her as some kind of guinea pig in an experimental procedure to restore her brain tissue. While the surgeries have been successful at improving her physical health, her mental health still needs some work, which is where shrink Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) comes in. Though Virginia suffers from frequent black-outs and a mild form of amnesia, memories from her past keep slowing coming back one piece at a time and are triggered by simple everyday occurrences. Despite her troubles, she's still had time to make popular friends and has become the newest inductee into "The Top 10;" an elitist group of rich kid snobs at Crawford Academy. Being part of the club basically means you come from money, wear the same purple-and-gray scarf, do reckless and stupid things and hang out in a closed-off clique.

The "Top 10" are a pretty obnoxious and thoroughly unlikable group of 20-something-looking "teenagers" who hang out at a pub all the time drinking, put a rat in someone's beer and engage in dangerous chicken races over a draw bridge. Because this is a slasher mystery in need of multiple suspects to attempt to throw us for a loop, every single one of the guys behaves like a weirdo or a pervert. They lurk around in the woods late at night, brandish knives, act psycho for no good reason and break into women's bedrooms to steal their panties after trying to get a cheap peak into what's going on in the bathroom. The strangest among them is Alfred (Jack Blum). You know he's strange because he wears glasses. Being a sculptor, mask-maker and taxidermist doesn't help matters either. Someone starts killing select members of this annoying little clique off one-by-one, but the bodies never seem to actually turn up.

Even by this early stage in the slasher cycle, the formula for making a profitable film in this subgenre was already firmly established. It was less about actual quality and more about gimmicks, advertising materials and snappy titles threatening to turn a nostalgic season or event in someone's life into a bloodbath. This one promised "six of the most bizarre murders you'll ever see;" when in fact there are only a couple of inventive murder sequences; the most memorable of which (a shish-ka-bob spear shoved through a head) was plastered all over the poster and subsequent VHS and DVD boxes. The only other death scene that's even remotely strange is when a guy drops weights onto his chest after another weight is dropped on his crotch. Actually sitting through the movie, you're mostly treated to the same old, same old: several neck slashings (bizarre?), a drowning in a bathtub (bizarre?) and a knife stabbing a stomach (bizarre?). Expectations dashed can be truly annoying, but misleading advertising is the name of the game and I'm used to it by now. It's no reason to say this is a bad movie. The awful screenplay however is a good reason to say this is a bad movie.

With borderline insufferable characters you could care less about, a shrill, screeching heroine and several absurd plot twists thrown out there at the last minute after lots and lots of confusing tedium, the inexplicably popular Happy Birthday to Me didn't do much for me personally. Director Thompson is perhaps one of the most respectable filmmakers to take on a slasher flick during this time. Usually these things were made by inexperienced directors with perhaps just a handful of minor credits to their name. In contrast, Thompson was already very well-established and had some solid films under his belt such as the original CAPE FEAR (1962). Taking that and the relatively high production values into consideration, it's surprising just how poorly this one turned out. The film fails to generate much suspense, it's too ham-fisted to work as a mystery and too dreary and serious to ever be "fun." Supposedly, the original script's ending was altered while the film was already well into production.

It's been said that respected, award-winning actor Ford only agreed to appear in this because of Thompson's involvement. He shouldn't have bothered. Neither should have Sharon Acker, as Virginia's drunken social climber mother (who's seen in several flashbacks), or Frances Hyland, as the school principal.

Some of the "Top 10" are played by future soap opera actress Tracey Bregman and Matt Craven (who's since moved on to big budget Hollywood films) as well as genre regulars Lisa Langlois (who'd previously acted in several superior Claude Chabrol films), Lenore Zann (from the slashers AMERICAN NIGHTMARE and VISITING HOURS) and Lesleh Donaldson (from FUNERAL HOME and CURTAINS). Vlasta Vrana (from several early Cronenberg films) also has a small role as a bartender.


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