Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

by Kevin "Pees in the Astro-Jump" Dillon

Like an obligatory birthday run through an overzealous spanking machine, 1981’s slasher exercise, Happy Birthday to Me, is a silly gauntlet of repressed resentments and creative violence that leaves you feeling a little sore, a little disoriented, and just a little violated for having experienced it. Even worse, at the end of your cinematic spanking, instead of cake and presents, the only gift this film got you is extended shots of an old-ass Glenn Ford with his shirt way too unbuttoned for a man his age. Happy birthday, indeed.

A fairly by-the-numbers knife-kill flick peppered sparingly with a few surprisingly good moments, Happy Birthday to Me centers around a rather large circle of friends called the “Top 10” at the Crawford Academy. I can’t confirm that Crawford is in fact a high school, as it looks like one of those old east coast colleges and its students all frequent a local bar, down brewskies together with nary a fake ID in sight, yet are still given detention for misbehavior. It’s confusing. This much is for sure though: Crawford is populated by rich, snotty, white, trust-fund babies, and the Top 10 (the top ten academically ranked students at school) are truly the snottiest as well as the whitiest.

For a group whose deep connections to each other mainly consist of similar grade point averages, and of course their bland, upper middle class-ness, this clique hangs out together an awful lot. Over the span of this movie, the gang enjoys a dirt bike race, a night at the movies, multiple visits to a local inn called The Silent Lady, they attend a soccer game, boogie down to some leftover disco music at a school dance, and smoke a doobie beneath the school’s pool. Seriously, over the handful of days the story takes place, they share more time together than cellmates doing a long stint in lockdown.

Hanging hard with her Top 10 buddies is this slasher film’s stereotype “final girl” candidate, Virginia, played by Little House on the Prairie's older sister to that bucktooth girl, Melissa Sue Anderson. Virginia, it seems, has a dark past, secret even to her, but definitely involving the death of her mother, and a traumatic accident/brain injury which has left her prone to blackouts but, sadly, not prone to nude scenes in horror films. Alas, my perverted Little House fetish will have to wait for the release of the porn spoof Little Mouth on the Prair-Rear, I guess. (Apologies.)

Virginia’s shrink, played by Glenn Ford (Pa Kent himself from the Christopher Reeves’ Superman movie), is trying, albeit in a slow, highly ineffective manner, to help Virginia to overcome her plot-convenient amnesia and come to grips with her dark past. Unfortunately, he only ends up traumatizing her and the viewers of this movie further with his oh-so-casual dress shirt, unbuttoned to near nipple level, revealing pink man-flesh, adorned with a gaudy gold chain that meanders quite naughtily through his sparsely haired chest. The horror. The horror.

When the Top 10’s lily-white membership starts to mysteriously decline due to even more mysterious disappearances, Virginia begins to wonder if there’s any connection between the suspicious disappearances and her possibly violent past.

Of course, we the audience are privy to what’s happening to her friends and it ain’t pretty. Veteran director J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear, and many of the Death Wish and Planet of the Apes sequels) decided quite wisely to mix and match his killing methods, so there’s almost a pleasant anticipation in awaiting the next teen’s demise. In no particular order, and with no guarantees you’re actually watching a definite death and not a red herring/fakeout, you’ll see: a straight razor kill, a hedge clippers kill, a barbell kill, a fireplace poker kill, a cake knife kill, a drowning, a bell tower rope kill--and my two favorites--a scarf caught in the spokes of a dirt bike’s wheels face rub-off, and best of all, the image used in the movie poster itself, the infamous shish kebab kill. A shish-KILLbab if you will. Or maybe Fon-DIE?

As good as the kill scenes are, and some are doozies, the remainder of the film is filled with lulling scenes of the Top 10 bickering amongst themselves, interchanging romantic partners in the group, and generally not noticing that their ranks are quickly depleting. Add to that plenty of plot dead ends, red herrings, and worst of all, fake kills later revealed as pranks and hallucinations and the achingly slow spectacle that is Virginia slowly piecing together the incident in her past that somehow ties it all together, and an hour and a half of movie has now past.

Finally, when a more lucid flashback reveals that Virginia’s life-changing incident involved a terrible car accident, and worse, a poorly attended birthday party, it becomes clear as we head into this movie’s home stretch, that she might be harboring subconscious resentments and possibly played a part in the ever growing rich-kid body pile.

The scene is now set for a climactic birthday party of gruesome, near epic proportions. And what a birthday bash it is. Unfortunately, even amidst a sequence that appears to promise brilliant payoff to the erratic meanderings of this overly long movie, the filmmakers decide at this very moment to drop the ball, gang rape the referee, and walk off the field giving the entire crowd the finger, with their miserably conceived, extremely flimsy ending.

Normally, I give any somewhat clever movie a little leeway if its conclusion is not entirely satisfactory, but this movie really screws the pooch and then quickly rolls the credits while you try desperately to boo and hiss through your unswallowed vomit. It’s one of the most tacked-on, Scooby-Dooiest, bullshit endings you’re ever likely to experience. Imagine Psycho ending by revealing Martin Balsam was the killer all along because he had access to both a time machine and a Star Trek teleporter. Imagine that Rosebud was really Citizen Kane’s cutesy name for the clitoris. Imagine Stephen Baldwin’s Siamese twin (separated at birth) revealed as Keyser Söze. Imagine hating orgasms, democracy, kittens, laughter, kindness, decency, crispy chips dripping with piping hot nacho cheese, and everything else even remotely good in life, because that’s how this movie’s slap-in-the-face ending will make you feel.

Now, who wants cake?