The next film in this index's trio of slasherific goodness serves as proof of how far a talanted director, great performances and decent production values can elevate a somewhat cliché ridden script into a work that nearly approaches genius. I came to this film with little to no expectations, so I was thrilled to discover a slasher jewel starring an actress I never appreciated before, but who I now might have to become just a little obsessed with.
I am, of course, talking about:
This 1981 classic was the immediate follow up by the same producing team that gave us the entertaining Canuck-fest that was My Bloody Valentine and it marks a serious improvement on virtually every level. This is due almost entirely to two different factors, the first of which was their decision to hire one of the great journeyman Hollywood directors of all time, J. Lee Thompson, who remains most famous for giving the world The Guns of Naverone and the original Cape Fear. Like all filmmakers better known for their professional craftsmanship rather than their artistic sensibilities (ie. the non-auteurs) Thompson's filmography is a somewhat schizophrenic affair featuring classic noirs, westerns, b-movie actioners, farcical comedy, a family musical, biopics, two Planet of the Apes sequels and more Charles Bronson movies than you even thought existed and it is this experience that elevates his lone slasher effort a touch above the rest.
Helping him is the second cause of the film's success, a surprising and extremely compelling performance by a pretty young television star who took the role in the hopes that it would help her break out from beyond the goody-goody blind girl role she had made famous on everyone's favourite ode to weekly tragedy, Little House on the Prairie (aka the show guaranteed to make you weep once per episode or your money back). Having previously only known Melissa Sue Anderson as the plucky punching bag of fate who was Mary Ingalls, I had no reason to believe that she would acquit herself so well in what would turn out to be her only feature film leading role, so I was shocked to discover just how easily she was able to handle her character's various transformations from likable heroine to confused medical guinea pig to saucy tart to psychotic killer to tragic Final Girl. Having so enthusiatically enjoyed her performance, I am now officially tortured knowing that she also appeared in what has become my bad movie Holy Grail, the fabled and disturbingly unavailable Skatetown USA.
WHY MUST THE BAD MOVIE GODS TAUNT AND TORTURE ME?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
I'm sorry. I'm back now.
Like so many other slasher movies, Happy Birthday To Me is set at a place of learning. In this case, the tony and expensive Crawford Academy, which appears to have a high school curriculum, but is populated by mostly college-aged students (suggesting that maybe rich people are slow learners). Our soon-to-be-victims are all members of an exclusive clique known as "The Ten", which--as their name would suggest--is made up of the ten richest and most attractive of the school's students. While most of "The Ten" are exactly the kind of obnoxious assholes who deserve to die in extremely horrific ways, Virginia Wainwright is the sunny exception. We know this because of her kindness to Alfie, the geeky junior taxidermist who walks around with a pet rat in his pocket and who--like Virginia and the film's killer--walks around wearing leather gloves for no apparent reason.
But, despite her best appearances, Virginia is a troubled young woman who suffered a near fatal accident four years earlier, which she can't remember and only survived due to the radically experimental procedures her doctors performed on her damaged brain. As she remains susceptible to unexplainable blackouts, she attempts to regain her memories of the traumatic event that also took the life of her mother with the help of a kindly psychiatrist (Glenn Ford), who truly believes she is well on her way on the road to recovery.
However it soon becomes clear that her therepy is not going as smoothly as it seems, when Virgina's friends from "The Ten" start disappearing. What no one knows is that an extremely disturbed individual is killing them off one by one as a means to avenge a personal vendetta. When Virginia--or someone who looks exactly like her--stabs Alfie with a pair of garden sheers and then impales Steve with a shish-kabob it becomes evident that her treatment isn't going as well as hoped.
Happy Birthday To Me isn't a perfect film. Its biggest flaw being a last minute explanation for what we've seen that comes straight out of any random episode of Scooby-Doo (including the "shocking" unmasking of the actual culprit), but since this reveal leads directly to the film's darkly hilarious final shot (which instantly catapulted itself onto my list of all-time faves and is pictured above), even this feels like nit-picking. One thing I really loved about this entry in horror's second-most disreputable genre (the torture-porn of Saw and Hostel having taking over the top spot) is how Thompson's direction is both remarkably contemporary for its period, while also strongly evocative of the films of the 40s and 50s. The best example of this is the scene between Virginia and Rudi in the church's bell tower, which is both filmed and performed in a style you can usually only find in the original noir films of the post-war period.
Unfortunately the recent DVD release of the film has already been discontinued, so you may have trouble getting your hands on a copy. I managed to get ahold of it through Zip.ca (aka Canada's Netflix) and I'm really glad I did. I just hope I have a few more surprises like this in store for me in the future.
Slasher Movie Statistics
Body Count: 9 (3 women and 6 men) Note: there may be a fourth female victim, but due to the way the character is portrayed and filmed, I honestly can't tell if she's dead or merely shell-shocked.
Shower Scenes: 1
Crucially Important Shower Scene Flashback Epiphanies: 1
Instances of Nakedity: 0 (for which it loses half a Final Girl point)
Obligatory Has Beens: I'm not going to be the one who calls Glenn Ford a has been. Doing so could cost me my Canadian citizenship.
Instruments of Death: Straight razor, dirt bike, free weights, garden sheers, metal skewer, fireplace poker, draw bridge and knife
Creepy (and therefore suspicious ) Old Guys: o
References to Pot: 1 (The surviving members of "The Ten" enjoy some reefer while discussing the disappearance of their friends)
Amount of Time Required to Correctly Identify Killer: Hard to judge, since I had the ending spoiled for me by the documentary I reviewed awhile back. That said, the killer's confession includes crucial details that the movie doesn't even hint at until the very end, so it is possible to make it all the way to the end without knowing who that killer really is.
Cheesy References to Other Horror Movies: Same one as always. Paging Mrs. Bates!
Unusually Rare Reference to Canada in a Canadian Horror Film:
Harold Wainwright: I'll be in Calgary in approximately 4 hours....
Most Hilariously Hysterical Overacting: Sharon Acker's rain soaked monologue
Utterly Pointless Trivia: Before he died, director J. Lee Thompson 's resume featured 7 movies starring Charles Bronson, including the infamous 1977 flop The White Buffalo.
Final Girl Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)
(Note: the third and final part of this Sunday night series will appear sometime this Tuesday)