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…