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Happy Birthday To Me

October 1st, 2008 by unkle lancifer · 25 Comments


I confess. I’m ga-ga for the kooky Canuck stalk and slash who-done-it known as HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. I say this knowing that there are large slices of the movie that are totally indefensible, most notably its slap you in the face, punish you for paying attention final reveal. Maybe it’s because I originally saw it at a very gullible age. Rather than be flabbergasted by the multitude of inconsistencies, contrary edits and overall implausibility, I was instead hog-in-slop happy to be eavesdropping on what the “big kids” were up to. I imagined my own future life of playing chicken over drawbridges, belonging to an elite snobby group that everyone secretly hates, and murdering people during well-timed blackouts.

Regardless of the film’s ability to sometimes drive me over the deep end with frustration, I cannot help returning to it again and again. It has a certain mood that I just can’t stay away from. There is a distinct gothic soap opera vibe. Amnesia, clandestine affairs, drunken, wealth-obsessed mothers banging on mansion gates in the rain, H.B.T.M. is decorated with thick, sweet old-fashioned melodrama. Furthermore, I think it does a fine job of capturing, like a firefly in a mason jar, the adolescent death wish angst that makes you skip curfew and head out to the graveyard. It doesn’t always work but even when it doesn’t, it delivers something memorable.

MELISSA SUE ANDERSON plays VIRGINIA WAINWRIGHT a girl on the fringe. She obviously has desires of fitting in with her friends and placating her aloof father, but she knows she is different from everybody. Years ago she and her floozy mother were involved in an accident that took her mother’s life and left Virginia in the need of some serious (and experimental) brain surgery. As flashbacks of the tragedy persist, Virginia’s friends begin to die in gruesome ways and it begins to appear that Ginny’s operation was not such a smashing success after all. Has the surgery altered Ginny? Although we are meant to, at turns, suspect nearly every one of the extensive cast of the murders, we are always in tune with Ginny who is growing more and more horrified of what she may be capable of. It’s an exaggerated metaphor for what many people feel at her age, that their mind or bodies are no longer their own.

Virginia is shown as a virginal goody-two shoes at first. She passively involves herself in wild stunts with her friends and immediately fights against her loss of control. She’s no wilting wallflower though, as the veils fall off we find her prone to raging outbursts and tantrums over her situation. The more she connects with her past pain the more aggressive she becomes. Some of her duel-natured behavior can be explained away by the film’s surprise conclusion, but not all. Actually, the film’s nature as a murder mystery requires many of its character’s to put on false facades at regular intervals so that suspicion may fall upon them. At the drop of a dime, Ginny and a number of her buddies are required to adopt icy stares and spout threatening double entendres. It may be a cheap ploy, but if you take it literally it has an eerie effect. In Ginny’s world, nobody seems to be who they say they are and everyone is a liar.

Which brings us to HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME‘s bizarre finale. I’m not complaining about the morosely beautiful setting or the more than impressive guests supplied by TOM BURMAN. Of course I’m referring to the de-masking of our killer and the subsequent unraveling of everything we’ve seen. After viewing Ginny’s calculated seduction and murder of a friend via shish kebob, it’s finally time for her birthday party to get underway. Here it is revealed that her pal Ann (TRACEY E. BREGMAN) has been responsible for everything we have witnessed thus far. (Although the discoteque seduction of her friend was all Ginny as Ann was present at the time). How were we the viewers who actually witnessed the last couple murders performed by Ginny misled? Well, Ann was wearing a mask, an incredible mask in fact, the kind that makes you look exactly like another person. Don’t get me wrong, a part of me bows down to this movie’s brazen audacity. In a way it’s a precursor to the television remote control in FUNNY GAMES. The movie basically looks the audience straight in the face and just says, “Suck it.”

You really can’t blame director J. LEE THOMPSON (The original CAPE FEAR and the CHARLES BRONSON slash-thriller 10 TO MIDNIGHT) because a surprise ending was forced on the guy. In 1981, it was pretty much mandatory in a horror movie. By all accounts it was our main gal Ginny who was meant to be the killer during filming and that’s just what I can’t let go of. I still want Ginny to be the killer. I think that’s a better, more original movie. In fact, it WAS the better, more original movie I was watching ’till this ending was thrown at me out of nowhere. Shoving in some voice over dialogue claiming one of the characters is a “genius mask maker” just doesn’t cut it. I want Ginny to be the killer because she deserves it. She earned it. There are few enough slasher films that delve into the mind of its killer, let alone slasher movies with a female protagonist/killer. (Speaking of clever play with genre gender roles, it’s important to note that the more elaborate, fetishistic kills are reserved for male cast members. The lone onscreen murder of a female (FUNERAL HOME‘s LESLEH DONALDSON ) at the film’s beginning, reads as perfunctory.)

At the end of the day I love this movie too much to ever really want to change it (don’t even get me started on it’s creeptastic theme song or those must-have Crawford Acadamy striped scarves) but, like a concerned mother telling her child to sit up straight, I can’t help wanting to adjust it so that others can see in it what I do. It is said that the ending that had Virginia as the killer was never even filmed, yet somehow it still exists in my mind’s eye. I’d forgive Virginia. She’s had crazy-ass experimental brain surgery after all, she’s not responsible. It could have been a modern female version of I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF if they had just let it alone. Jeez, you want a surprise ending? Just have Ginny’s dead mom grab her hand at the end. What do you think dead people are for in horror movies?

Recently I’ve discovered a way to watch this movie AND accept its bonkers conclusion. It’s simple really, Ann’s bathtub drowning was the real deal. My Ginny, wracked with guilt, and unable to accept her actions, simply hallucinates that her dead pal Ann masqueraded as her and is responsible for the bloodshed. Denial is a powerful force, and is there any greater reality-smasher than good old tried and true insanity? It’s a stretch I know, but in a movie where identities are shuffled about like playing cards and where truth is whatever you explain it to be, what’s one more mask to tear off?

Note: Unfortunately, the current DVD of H.B.T.M. has an alternative soundtrack to the previous theatrical version. Although this does benefit us with an extra disco tune nothing can replace the previous score which cleverly riffed on the film’s awesome theme song throughout. Luckily, SYREETA‘s haunting number still remains over the closing credits…

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25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mamamiasweetpeachesNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 9:24 am

    OhmyGAWD ohmyGAWD ohmyGAWD…I LOVE this movie! This was the first Horror movie I ever saw from beginning to end (unlike the bits and pieces of THE OMEN and THE OTHER I had snuck into my parents room to peek)

    I usually don’t go in for the “Cast A Young Female TV Star” method of casting but I think the fact they got Melissa Sue Anderson – MARY from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE! – to be the lead really worked for me! (Everyone from THE PRARIE shoulda made a Horror movie! – oh snap – I just realized “Albert” DID (DEADLY FRIEND)!

    The whole drawbridge thing really upset me as a kid and for years I hated going over those things for fear it would open up and suck me and my drunk Mom in!

    I have this DVD (damn that new soundtrack!) and I watch it AT LEAST once a year. I never get tired of it. It has a very warm and fuzzy nostalgic quality, it hasn’t aged poorly, the kills are INDEED unique and memorable (Shish ke bob, anybody?) and I can even forgive it it’s pre-SCREAM “HUH????” ending.

    Definately one tht i would take on a deserted island with me.

  • 2 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 9:43 am

    MamamiaSP,

    I can’t stop watching this movie. I think I’ve seen it on just about a yearly basis as well. It drives me mad and I love it. I forgot to mention in this post how they constantly do this great thing where they have the dialogue from the next scene bleeding into the scene you’re watching. All the sudden you just hear KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! and then before you can react you see it’s just Ginny screaming at a soccer game. LOVE THAT. 
    And how about when Ann visits Ginny after she has done the shish kabob kill and is like ” Tell me what happened last night, I want to hear all the GORY details.” This movie is so clever.
    The mask thing blows my mind though, what is she a fembot all of the sudden?
    And what is the deal with that weird electrical laser bolt that the teacher shoots out of his finger? What world is that in? It looks like something from FLASH GORDON.
    That scene drives me insane almost as much as the ending. Sure, it does bring back fond memories of the Scott Baio epic ZAPPED but I am also always in fear that the classmates will break into a rousing rendition of “reproduction’ from GREASE 2.

    Here is a pic of THE ZAP!
    http://kindertrauma.com/images/movies/rudyzapped.jpg

  • 3 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 11:06 am

    O.K, here’s my dream ending. Ginny killed them all during blackouts cuz her brain is fried. She comes to at the birthday table and is completely freaked out buy what she sees. Her dad walks in behind her and is also aghast. He puts his hand on her shoulder and she swings about in shock and cuts his throat. She’s totally insane now so she starts singing “happy birthday to me.” and takes the knife to cut herself a piece of cake…suddenly her mom’s dead corpse hand is around hers and helping her slice it. She looks up and all the dead guests are standing up animated. They say happy birthday Ginny and begin to close in on her (sorta like MANIAC) and then the screen goes black.

    Now, If they simply HAD to have someone else be the killer, here are some options besides Ann…

    Ginny’s twin– I loved seeing MSA in splitscreen, an unknown sister would have been great. Twins would also fit snugly into the soap opera vibe.

    The psychiatrist- This would be very cliche but would be worth it to see Glen Ford as a maniac.

    Her dad- never trusted the guy.

    Her mom- Her mother is back from the dead to avenge her daughter!- somehow I feel a good old zombie is more believable then that crazy mask.

    That head mistress lady with the bulldog- She hated those kids. I think she has a mongoloid kid in her closet that was not accepted to Crawford Academy!

    Disgruntled sweatshop worker- an elderly woman who has been forced to live in the bowels of Crawford Academy and knit scarves all day is fed up and has gone berserk!

    Waltons fantantics- a roving band of Walton’s fanatics who have always held a grudge against LITTLE HOUSE are fed up with MSA and have gone berserk!

    facehuggers- The school is infested with them. Hal Linden saves the day in the end.

  • 4 mamamiasweetpeachesNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Your making me want one of those scarves reallllly badly. And it’s FALL so I NEEEED one!

    How sweet would it be if I could eBay my way one Melissa Sue wore??? I would SLEEP with that sh!t!

  • 5 CarrieWhitePowerNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this one…

  • 6 Jeff AllardNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    One of my absolute, all-time favorites! I’m still deeply bitter about it’s treatment on DVD. I could forgive the shitty cover art but when I clicked on Play expecting to hear that amazing score over the opening and instead heard a disco tune blaring in its place, a part of my soul died. Thank God I held onto to my VHS copy but the real HBTM needs to gets its due on DVD! Alternative soundtrack, my ass!

  • 7 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Jeff,
    My understanding is that the present score on the DVD was slapped on the film when they were waiting for the soundtrack to get finished. It’s really just a rush job that somebody scrambled together so they could see how the film played as they waited. In places it is completely insane and over the top. For example, when they show the campus they play this happy generic elevator music. I read somewhere that (I think) the UK DVD has an additional German audio track with the classic music still in place. A part of me thinks this is just a good way for them to repackage the whole thing, original score intact, at a later date, and sell it once more to the same exact audience. (cynical, aren’t I?) I don’t know much about copyright laws but how did they still retain the rights to the closing tune and not the score???

    One things for sure the absence of the original score does make a big difference with this film. Not only does it effect the shock scenes but previously throughout the film you heard bits and pieces of the closing song’s medley so that when it finally played in the end, it created a powerful closure to what you had witnessed. As much of a travesty as it is, I love being able to see the film cleaned up and letterboxed, there is a lot that was lost visually in the pan and scan version but like you said, I too am clinging very tightly to my old VHS…

    Many fans were really outraged by this whole thing. It actually does my heart good to see that there are so many people who do not take their horror soundtracks lightly and realize what an important element they are to these films.

  • 8 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    “C’mon Wilson, give mommy head!”

    Lesleh Donaldson RULES.

    I’ve only watched my vhs copy because of the soundtrack issue. I have the awesome theme song on CD too.

    I was just watching this movie last week. Well, part of it. I got sleepy right after.  I like HBTM movie a lot too. I notice that newbies (those being non-horror people I’ve made watch this) didn’t like the ending either. I think for die-hard slasher fans, we are much more forgiving. Even with your dream ending Lance, you still give the movie props because, let’s face it, it’s good. Regardless.

  • 9 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Amanda,
    The first time I saw it I really didn’t have a problem with the ending, I accepted it completely. But I guess watching it over and over again at some point I got all Annie Wilkes and was like “Wait a cocka-doody minute here, that’s impossible!” As far as the ending goes it’s sort of a love/hate relationship. I feel like, O’k that scene is fun and unique BUT it also stops people from taking the movie seriously and it rubs out, or makes you forget what the movie was really about up until then.

    This time out watching it I kept thinking about MULHOLLAND DRIVE and HAUTE TENSION.

    M. DRIVE is similar in that it started out as a different beast all together. (a television pilot) but somehow the loose ends and shifts in focus that occur after the reassembled ending is in place only serve to make it MORE interesting and disorienting.

    HAUTE TENSION’s ending really pisses me off. It’s a great movie but that twist is just needless and feels insincere.

    Anyway all three movies are movies that I LOVE to talk and think about and I’d rather have that then a movie that just goes through the motions.

  • 10 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    One “pull the carpet out from under you” ending that really got me was ANGEL HEART’s. Mickey Rourke screaming and crying “I know who I am!” That scared the shit out me.

    The fact of the matter is If i were to make my fantasy edit of HBTM a reality I’m not sure I could get rid of Virginia (as Ann) saying ” Take a look! TAKE A GOOD LOOOOOONG LOOK!”

    That’s my favorite line in the WHOLE movie AND its specifically part of that ending!!!!!

  • 11 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    One more thing, (Was I kidding when I said HBTM makes me ga-ga?) Did you guys realize that Syreeta who sang the theme song also sang this diddy?

  • 12 spinninmartyNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    My lovely wife is very new to the horror genre, let alone 80’s slasher movies.  However, like Sawyer from “Lost”, a bout with mono during her grade school years resulted in her missing the first half of the day, but allowed her to catch the local station’s Little House double shot.  Because of this, she knows as much about the Ingall’s as I do about the Simpsons.  I think HBTM and Deadly Friend will be the perfect double feature to bridge our two worlds and a great way to start the 31 days of Halloween.  Thanks for the reminder.

  • 13 micksterNo Gravatar // Oct 1, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    Wow! Unkle L., I like it when you get so excited about a movie. Somehow, I never saw this one. I remember looking at the box numerous times at the local video store (the picture of the shish kebob in the mouth). After reading your review, I quickly went to Netflix to place it near the top of my queue. Unfortunately, it says very long wait next to it. Speaking of shocking twist endings, I was totally floored when I saw The Others the first time. I went to see it at the theater alone, so I didn’t have anyone to discuss it with when it was over.

  • 14 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Oct 2, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Lance, have you looked at Syreeta’s bio? She was married to Stevie Wonder and co-wrote Signed, Sealed and Delivered! Both her and Billy have passed away, which is just too sad. She had the voice of an angel. I think I need to pick up some of her records. Thanks for the heads up!

  • 15 micksterNo Gravatar // Oct 2, 2008 at 7:17 am

    Oh! I just recognized the name TRACEY E. BREGMAN.She plays Lauren Fenmore on the Young and the Restless. That’s two actresses from my favorite soap in the past week.

  • 16 Vince LiagunoNo Gravatar // Oct 3, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    Lesleh Donaldson is a terrific scream queen ~ and totally underrated. Ok…I’m biased (yes, she’s another acquaintance of mine! I have a thing for underrated scream queens, what can I say??). Anyway, Lesleh and I have just finished an extensive interview regarding her horror films that I pitched as the second in a series of interviews with 80’s scream queens to HorrorHound Magazine (thought their retro vibe fit the theme of the series best) but, unfortunately, these guys aren’t up to speed yet dealing with professional writers and never even had the courtesy to respond. Am pitching to Rue Morgue now. An excerpt of Lesleh’s interview will be used in Dark Scribe Press’ upcoming book on slasher films Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film after the book’s essay on Curtains.

    Fun fact: the character of Maggie in The Literary Six is based on Lesleh and envisioned with her in the role if the thing ever makes it to the screen!

  • 17 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 4, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Vince,
    I know how you love the Donaldson!!!. I hope you don’t take my calling her death scene in HBTM “perfunctory” as a statement against her. It’s just that while all the guys get these fancy showcase kills hers is a measly throat slashing and in a parking lot no less! I do like that she gets to fake out her assailant and play dead, something we rarely see in slashers but Bernadette O’hara as far as I’m concerned, got notably short changed in the kill department!

    PS I just watched an episode of FRIDAY the 13th the series called “the great Montarro” and Lesleh got to play EVIL in it!!!! She was great.
    (Oh if only Bernadette was responsible for the HBTM killings!!!)

  • 18 micksterNo Gravatar // Oct 4, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Unkle, You got my attention by mentioning Friday the 13th the Series. Did you see the episode on Chiller or did you buy the 1st season on DVD? Sorry to be a pest, but you know how I love that show.

  • 19 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 4, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Mickster,
    I got the series on DVD! Actually, I couldn’t wait to tell you. I was going to watch it straight through and review it but now I think I’m going to take my sweet time with it. It’s just too good and the perfect thing to watch late at night before going to sleep! Now I can finally see the episodes in order too. The DVD is pretty cheap considering how much content is there and well, you really have to see Roby’s hair on DVD!!!

  • 20 micksterNo Gravatar // Oct 4, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Unkle,
    Believe it or not, I haven’t bought it yet. I probably would have bought it right away if I hadn’t watched all the episodes on Chiller. It will probably be on my Christmas wish list. I love looking at Roby’s awesome hair and wardrobe. I also had quite a crush on Ryan (I’ve always gone for the geeky type). Well, now I’m excited about it again. I may just go ahead and buy it for myself. Let me know if you like my top ten episodes.

  • 21 Vince LiagunoNo Gravatar // Oct 4, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    “I hope you don’t take my calling her death scene in HBTM “perfunctory” as a statement against her. It’s just that while all the guys get these fancy showcase kills hers is a measly throat slashing and in a parking lot no less!”

    Hey, a scream queen can’t have it all in every movie, can she now? Besides, Lesleh’s “kill” scene in Curtains – one of the all-time best movie murders –  more than made up for the quickie she got in HBTM!

  • 22 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Oct 4, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    Vince,
    Exactly! For anyone not familiar THIS is a showcase kill…

  • 23 BQueenNo Gravatar // Oct 5, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Love Love Love HBTM!  I try to watch it with April Fool’s Day when I have time.  I don’t know why those two films are linked in my head.  It’s possible I rented them together in the 80’s.

    OT but you guys talking about Friday the 13th the series, did you know that Louise Robey sang?  I was introduced to the video of her remake of “One Night in Bangkok” recently and wow, cheesetastic!  It was on youtube but I can’t find it now.

  • 24 DavidFullamNo Gravatar // Oct 7, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    I got to see this film one day. Melissa Sue looks scrumptious!

  • 25 moviesdrewNo Gravatar // Oct 13, 2008 at 7:13 am

    I saw “Happy Birthday To Me” on VHS videotape in 1982 when I was fourteen.I loved it and even made a copy of the movie.I was really disappointed with the altered score on the DVD that was released four years ago.There is a region 4 PAL DVD that came out a few months back.Does anyone know if this version has the original score in the English audio track?The cover art does feature the original poster image but I don’t know about the film.If someone could tell me I would appreciate it greatly.I love this movie as much at forty as I did all those years ago at fourteen.I’m glad that others feel  about the movie like I do.Thanks,Drew levan

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