Sunday, November 5, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Do you even lift, bro?


Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by Timothy Bond, Peter Jobin, John Saxton, and John S. Beaird
With Melissa Sue Anderson (Ginny Wainright), Glenn Ford (Dr. David Faraday), Lawrence Dane (Hal Wainwright), Sharon Acker (Estelle Wainwright), Jack Blum (Alfred), Matt Craven (Steve), Lenore Zann (Maggie), David Eisner (Rudi), Michel-Rene Labelle (Etienne), Richard Rebiere (Greg), Lesleh Donaldson (Bernadette), Lisa Langlois (Amelia), and Tracey E. Bregman (Ann)

Spoiler alert: moderate-to-highish

Happy (belated) Halloween!  It's time for our fourth annual Old Switcheroo!  As our friend Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture plies his way through the sci-fi of a bygone era, I put on his face (humanely removed, I assure you) and swim through the great lake of viscera and boobs we call... the 1980s

The disappointment of Happy Birthday to Me is that it has so much going for it.

Now, yes: it's true that it was (as virtually every slasher flick from its era fundamentally is) a fellow traveler on the Halloween bandwagon; but that's never stopped any slasher film from being good, and, frankly, it's never stopped a fair number of slasher films from being better than JC's own progenitor.  Birthday had the pedigree to take its rightful place in the latter group: it came from the same people responsible for one of the very best of Carpenter's misshapen children, My Bloody Valentine.  Like Valentine before and (paradoxically) after it, Birthday was the brainchild of Canada's most famous slasher-makers, John Dunning and Andre Link.  Meanwhile, its script was given an uncredited brush-up by Valentine's screenwriter, John S. Beaird.

Even without this connection, however, one would be justified in having somewhat miscalibrated expectations, for Birthday is amongst the classiest of the slashers.  Not merely is it Canadian—although that's already a pretty good sign—Birthday was also even better-funded than Valentine itself, coming in at a cool $2.5 million.  Not an enormous sum, but certainly rather high for this kind of film—and that money shows up on the screen, too.  Birthday's a slasher well-heeled enough to wreck not just one but two automobiles, and one of them in a frankly radical vehicle stunt almost right at the very beginning of the film—as if to say, "I know what you're thinking, but wait!  This one's a real movie."

But even better than that, Birthday is one the few slasher films that could boast a real director on its set, too.  This was J. Lee Thompson, a Golden Age holdover who'd cut his teeth decades earlier, responsible for a fair number of good movies from all sorts of genres.  But his most notable success, especially in terms of nasty-minded shockers, surely must be the original Cape Fear.  So far, so good, no?

Thompson's experience does routinely make itself known in the final project, which puts Birthday very much at odds with the amateur-hour productions that typify the slasher form.  While no one would, could, or should describe Birthday as any kind of masterpiece, nor even an especially polished or interesting work of cinema, the fact that Thompson possessed a basic facility with movement inside a shot is still akin to a slap in the face after watching something like Slumber Party Massacre—to the extent it's kind of weird and even off-putting to see a slasher film where the director doesn't appear to be worried that if they tried staging a conversation in three dimensions they might accidentally break their camera.

But then we have that story, and Birthday's story is somehow both weird as fuck and 100% bad slasher boilerplate, all at once.  So: somewhere in North America, there exists the Crawford Academy, which turns out to be a private high school of such incredible poshness that you're more likely to mistake it for a college, and our main cast of characters as undergrads, if not fifth-year Ph.D. students.  Clearly, this is par for the course in slasher movies, and movies populated by "teens" generally; but even Birthday's own screenplay doesn't appear to be entirely certain what demographic it's drawing its ensemble from, given that we meet the film's first victim, Bernadette, on the way to a townie pub, the ominously-named Silent Woman (which comes complete with an even more ominous sign, of a decapitated female body).  Berndaette is stalked and slain, as happens in movies such as these—the stalking is kind of terrible, but the slaying comparatively bodacious—and we move directly to her destination, where her nine high school friends wait in vain for her arrival.

While we desperately try to figure out which province of Canada this is supposed to be, and what the odds might be for ten high school seniors to all be eighteen years old.

Thus our coterie of expendable meat has conveniently assembled for our delectation, and it's a real who's-who of Crawford's coolest kids—so cool they feel comfortable styling themselves Crawford's "Top Ten," presumably because when they begin to die, the screenwriters would prefer us to be rooting against them.  This might also be why they're such an undifferentiated mass of boredom.  Of the whole group of ten, only two manage to stand out immediately: Etienne, because he's French and rides a motorcycle; and Alfred, because he's a weirdo nerd creeper with a mouse in his pocket, and who very obviously has no business whatsoever hanging out with this collection of jocks and their affiliated jocksuckers.

Indeed, our heroine herself, Virginia "Ginny" Wainwright, does not make any impression as of yet.  Nevertheless, when our Top Ten must flee the bar on the heels of some prank-related mayhem, and their eyebrow-raising teen hellion behavior leads them to partake in a game of vehicular nerves—namely, a race against a rapidly-rising drawbridge—Ginny's teary objection to her friends' recklessness (and, let's be clear, the fact that the story continues to follow her back home) marks her clearly enough as our story's Final Girl.

Or does it?  Ginny, you see, is not merely a brittle young woman, but a young woman with a past to justify the brittleness—her problem being that she does not know exactly what that past is.  Her mother died in an accident, a few years back; and this involved Ginny somehow, which is why Ginny's missing portions of her memory and, more to the point, her actual brain, which her doctor, a certain David Faraday, has lately taken to regrowing with super-scientific electric fields.

And, honestly, I feel like I ought to italicize the whole back half of that sentence, to emphasize its insanity.  Yet why should I bother?  The batshit tenor of Happy Birthday's sci-fi turns out not to be especially important to its actual plot, and one wonders why or how it was felt to be a good idea to include it, given that "she hit her head, and this is why Ginny has both amnesia and the occasional blackout" presumably would have worked just as well.  In any event, her amnesia might be getting better under Faraday's ministrations, but her blackouts are getting much worse, as she approaches her eighteenth, nineteenth, or possibly twenty-fourth birthday.  For was it not upon Ginny's birthday that her horrible trauma occurred?

From here, it goes much as you would expect: the Top Ten is whittled down one-by-one, their disappearances suspiciously coincident with Ginny's lost time.  We see their murders, so we know what's going on, at least to the extent they're being killed by someone they know.  But the characters inside the film can only suspect, and, of course, by "can suspect" I actually mean, "they don't."

This gets us to how Happy Birthday fails to meet the Valentine-level standard we've set for it, and the very first thing I noticed about the film was its eyebrow-raising runtime (110 full minutes!), which is certainly not used well: to the extent the film spins a mystery around Ginny's condition, it plays decently enough, but there is simply no justification for the sheer quantity of time we spend with her blisteringly-dull, anonymous, and slow-on-the-uptake friends.  It is shockingly deep into those 110 minutes before any member of the Top Ten puts together so much as the rudiments of a pattern to the disappearances, which leaves us instead with a great milling-about in the movie's center, alongside one obnoxious absence of tension.  Meanwhile, although it could only come as legitimate surprise to someone who'd never seen any slasher movie before (including the first 90 minutes of this one) that this killer's reign of terror is founded entirely upon the sins of the past, it is surprising (but not in any interesting way) that fully four of our Top Ten are superfluous to the revenge plot in progress.

So what we actually have is an overpopulated murder mystery with one perfunctory red herring and nobody being scared.  (That red herring, in case you couldn't guess, is Alfred—for not only was he late to the bar that first night, he's also a sex-starved, ghoulish Johnny Slasherfan, with a penchant for crafting his own homemade gore effects.  In fact, he even has what looks like Bernadette's severed head on a plate.  In other words, he's so obviously signposted as the killer that he couldn't be; hence the only honestly-earned surprise of the whole film arises from our growing suspicion in the third act that maybe they were simply hiding him in plain sight.)

Eventually, of course, Happy Birthday's murder mystery ends in a way that practically all dead teenager movies do—that is, with a good ol' dumbassed twist.  Happy Birthday, though, may have the most dumbassed twist in the history of the slasher movie dumbassed twist: a reveal almost completely devoid of foreshadowing (the foreshadowing we get comes about 85 minutes into the movie, and amounts to one shot), and which was never actually written into the script.  I presume this was Beaird's on-set contribution to Happy BirthdayValentine's twist ending is at least as preposterous.  It's arguably even more poorly-set-up.  Unfortunately, Happy Birthday's has the added demerit of being so supremely confusing that I literally could not figure out what was supposed to be happening until I sat down to piece together all the various relationships that went into the impenetrable offscreen soap opera that underlie its alleged drama.  (And, according to Wikipedia, I actually got it wrong.)

You should never have to compare a slasher movie to BDP's Mission: Impossible, but since we do (and, mind-blowingly, for more just than one reason), you should still never have to say that BDP's Mission: Impossible also possessed more clarity.

Basically, it's just awful enough to ruin a movie I'd been at least well-disposed toward up until then—as I always say, even the most borderline of slasher films have a certain programmatic charm, and that's as true in Happy Birthday as it's ever been, whereas the woozy formalism that attends to Ginny's fugue states does conjure up a halfway-compelling mood to get us through the proceedings, even as overlong as they are.

That leaves us with the kills, though, and these are almost a saving grace: they're creative and varied, and while not quite gory enough, their guignol is definitely appreciated.  The best of them is as stupid a slasher flick kill as I've ever seen—but it is an amazing piece of (literal!) suspense, when our killer proves to be an untrustworthy spotter.  The closest Happy Birthday ever gets to the laugh-out-loud goofy clownishness of the best slasher films is right here, in its gloriously obstinate unwillingness to accept that a man who can bench press 195 pounds could, undoubtedly, also manage to harmlessly move that 195 pounds off his chest, without smashing his head in with it in the process (even if you did rudely remove his rack beforehand).

Greg, man!  Have you considered not holding it at full extension while you wait for the killer to drop another weight on your nuts?

Sure, the other kills are fun enough, but this one will stick with me forever—as will the legitimately chilling tableau of death that opens up the film's climax, and which (if the movie had had the basic good sense to end there, as its screenplay did) would have been a pretty fantastic Psycho-style conclusion.  This film, if the title didn't tip you off, is about a birthday party; and there haven't been many onscreen celebrations more gruesomely ironic than the one Thompson stages here.  Pity it does go on for another ten minutes or so, regardless—all while you squint at the screen saying, "What the fuck is this shit?", but not in a good way.

Killer: Ann, who turns out to be Ginny's half-sister, somehow
Final Girl: Ginny
Best Kill: Greg laments that he never worked on his core as he struggles under an amount of weight that he should be rightfully able to simply sit straight up with
Sign of the Times: Kids who got into a drunken scrape at a bar were told they were bad and needed to improve, rather than being processed through the legal system, ensuring that for the next 60 years of their lives, they'd constantly have to wonder if they could've done better except for that one mistake
Scariest Moment: The birthday party our killer's arranged, with every last one of their victims sitting in attendance—no matter how badly mangled their bodies wound up getting, during each of their respective murders
Weirdest Moment: Unwilling to accept defeat, Greg literally jumps the drawbridge, and brings his cherry musclecar down nose-first onto the other side, doing about $3000 worth of damage, even if he didn't smash the engine, and his reaction is to shrug it off so completely I'm not sure you can properly call it a "reaction," because privilege, loser
Champion Dialogue: "God, you've got a lot of nerve."  "That's not all I've got.  Want to see?"
Body Count: 8
1. Bernadette, throat slashed with a razor after an awkward pseudo-chase through a parking lot
2. Etienne, victim of the perfect murder, when the killer finds him tuning his motorcycle's engine while wearing the longest festive scarf in the world
3.  Greg, crushed under his own weights like a complete moron
4.  Alfred, stabbed, kind of boring
5.  Steve, midnight snacked (just look at the poster! it's rad)
6.  Dr. Faraday, firepokered from behind
6a.  Amelia, or at least I thought she was dead, but it turns out this movie just gets really garbled and confused—and Amelia's not even the secret killer!
7.  Hal Wainwright, stabbed with a cake knife
8.  Ann, also stabbed with a cake knife
TL;DR: It could've been so-bad-it's-good, but, unfortunately, its advantages in money and skill only ever elevate Happy Birthday To Me to a point just high enough to where you'd prefer call it so bad-it's-boring


  1. Wow, we've really burned through a lot of these, haven't we? Looking at four years laid out like that is kind of impressive.

    As always, I have completely failed to predict your reaction to any and all movies that I assigned you. I thought you'd dig the Scooby Doo-esque twist in this one, completely failing to remember how egregiously long it is. But I'm happy you got through it and I'll do my best to come up with a perfect slate for next year, starting with the infamous Slumber Party Massacre II, which is a must-see and only like 62 minutes long, so we can make up for the extra time you spent this year.

    1. Well, let me say simply that I look forward to next year! Of course, I had fun with this year's selection, as always, even if there was a dud: as Meat Loaf said, long before he became a right-wing crazy person, two out of three ain't bad. (I'm any event, next year I'll get started sooner, since the various structural issues that have led to me posting only 5 or 6 times a month are not all that likely to be resolved!)