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Thursday, January 27, 2022

‘Happy Birthday to Me’ Remains One of the Weirdest and Best 80s Slashers

Ginny’s life is perfect, but as the audience slowly learns over the course of Happy Birthday to Me, that was not always the case. And as the 1981 film’s title implies, Ginny’s increasing sense of dread has everything to do with a traumatic birthday from her past. Unfortunately for Ginny, another frightful birthday awaits her in the near future.

According to her memoir, The Way I See It, Melissa Sue Anderson was excited when she landed her first big-screen part; she was enthused to play someone other than tragic Mary Ingalls when she joined the cast of J. Lee Thompson’s Cinépix production. Her role in the popular television series Little House on the Prairie had already been severely reduced, so scheduling time off was not a problem either. Between June and August of 1980, the cast and crew of Happy Birthday to Me filmed in Montréal, Canada. Little did they all know, they were making what would become one of the strangest and best 80s slashers to come out of the decade.

Set in and around prep school Crawford Academy, the film shadows Anderson’s high-school character, Virginia “Ginny” Wainwright, as she navigates her way through her senior year. Ginny is the latest addition to a group of elite students referred to as the Top Ten. When they are not street-racing over a double-bascule drawbridge, the Top Ten is causing trouble at a local pub. Everyone puts up with this juvenile behavior because of the students’ privileged status, but someone in town is less forgiving. Ginny and her friends are soon stalked one after the other by an assailant who keeps their identity a surprise until the film’s climactic finish.

The early 1980s was a good time to be a slasher fan (and a bad one for those less interested film critics). This distinct flood of lurid whodunits, however, had essentially dried up the gimmick well by the time Happy Birthday to Me came out. Summer camp, graduation, prom, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s — it seemed like no special event or holiday was left when producers John Dunning and Andre Link’s film finally got off the ground. They eventually chose birthdays — the producers might not have realized another slasher called Bloody Birthday was in the works around the same time — and their screenwriter, John Saxton. Of course the script went through major rewrites later on, which included changing the antagonist.

Even with a different killer, the story continuously points to Ginny as the guilty party. Ginny’s innocence is up in the air early on as she shows up late to a Top Ten gathering after Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson) disappears. The outcast of the clique and Ginny’s admirer, Alfred (Jack Blum), is also a suspect; Ginny and Ann (Tracey E. Bregman) stumble upon his lair of eerily lifelike replicas, including one of Bernadette’s head. Between the two characters, though, only Ginny is physically shown to be murdering her friends. It is unmistakably she who stabs one victim in the gut with shears before later taking a shish kebab skewer to another’s mouth. The uninitiated viewer has no choice but to trust their eyes before the tremendous conclusion brings the house down.

Reinforcing Ginny’s guilt are a series of blackouts and an unshakable, repressed memory. The experimental brain procedure she endured four years ago is causing Ginny to randomly lose consciousness, and now she wakes up with no recollection of her activities. Ginny even finds herself in proximity of Ann’s corpse in the bathtub before it conveniently disappears without a trace in the next scene. Viewers are wary when a film reveals its cards so early, but everything starts to make more sense once the clock strikes midnight on Ginny’s eighteenth birthday.

A potent cocktail of red herrings and plot misdirection has convinced everyone, including Ginny herself, the final girl is also the villain with a spotty memory. Slashers largely refrain from this sort of a-ha twist seeing as it feels like a betrayal. Luckily, Happy Birthday to Me is not one of these exceptions. Vincent Canby’s 1981 review for The New York Times brings attention to the film’s confusing story. In its defense, this is why Thompson’s film is so memorable when propped up against other slashers from the same time period. 

The convoluted narrative has a lot to do with Timothy Bond and Peter Jobin’s major reworking of Saxton’s screenplay. As Anderson states in her memoir, she “was so convincing as the good girl, they didn’t want to sacrifice the audience’s sympathy” when it turned out Ginny was the killer all along in the original story. This mid-production change called for a plaster cast of Anderson’s whole head so the effects team could then make a latex mask of her face. The rewrite was shaping up to be something unique, but that spark of creativity was lost on critics already fed up with the oversaturation of slashers in those days.

The Top Ten’s deaths are never as collectively bizarre as promised in Columbia Pictures’ promotional material, and very little aftermath from the killer’s handiwork is ever shown on screen, if at all. Photos from the set, though, prove special effects artist Tom Burman — who replaced Stéphan Dupuis before shooting commenced — had cooked up some gory eye candy. Lovers of practical viscera will be disappointed by the lack thereof in the individual executions, but the fruits of Burman and his team’s three weeks worth of labor can be seen in the anticipated birthday party. The film’s fodder is gathered around a festooned table for a macabre celebration of both Ginny’s birth and the unveiling of the real murderer. The reveal is, suffice it to say, shocking. Found here is perhaps the most Scooby-Doo-ish of killer unmaskings along with a screwy, personal motivation similar to that of Wes Craven’s first Scream.

“Now that everyone’s gathered here, sing out loud and clear
Cheerful as can be: ‘Happy birthday’ to me…”

With the denouement still in mind and Syreeta’s haunting ballad playing over the ending credits, viewers remember not every slasher lives by the “go big or go home” rule. Happy Birthday to Me eschewed convention long before metatextual stories and increasingly intrepid sequels became the norm for the subgenre. So while golden-age slashers are enjoyable on the whole, the epic and singular quality of this one film is the icing on the cake.

Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.

The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.

The post ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ Remains One of the Weirdest and Best 80s Slashers appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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