Wicked Wednesday: Happy Birthday To Me (1981)

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It’s my 25th birthday on Friday, which means a few things: first, my gold birthday year is now gone. Second, I get to celebrate a birthday in Wisconsin for the first time in… forever. Third, I have an excuse to watch Happy Birthday to Me, which has been on my to-watch list for too long now.

Happy Birthday to Me was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who had a lengthy career as a film maker (including an Academy Award nod for best director for his film The Guns of Navarone) but by the 80’s Thompson was directing films like the Cannon-produced 10 to Midnight and Death Wish 4, which better explains this little number from 1981.

The film has a bit of a notoriety about it for having some excellent death scenes and a twist ending. To be completely honest, most of the films I watch for Wicked Wednesday are promoted this way and rarely are deserving of it, but Happy Birthday to Me is certainly an unusual film, and much more memorable for it’s deaths than perhaps anything else.

At Crawford Academy, an elite group exists at the school called the Top Ten. The ten members are all the richest and most popular kids at the school. Recently joining their ranks is Virginia or “Ginny” (played by Melissa Sue Anderson, or as we call her in my family – Mary Ingalls).

Part of the Top Ten’s idea of fun is pulling various (lame) pranks and playing “games,” which are more like idiotic stunts than a rousing game of hide and seek. One night after leaving their haunt, the Silent Woman Tavern, the kids all get into their separate cars and jump a draw bridge as it moves up for an oncoming ship. Ginny is shoved into a car with two others, some of the last in the line.  As the car Ginny is in approaches the jump, she begins to get frightened, and while the car makes the jump you can hear her screaming “mother,” which is actually painfully lame on Ginny’s part, to be honest.

Oh and unbeknownst to the, one of their members is picked off by an assailant that she seemed to know and trust initially.

But the incident upsets the crap out of her and she runs away from her friends and into the woods where she stops by her mother’s grave. Unknown to Ginny, she’s being stalked by the French exchange student, Etienne. After she rebuffs him, he follows her home to crawl into her house and steal a pair of her underwear. He proudly presents them to her after winning a bike race. This, obviously, creeps her out and angers her (this is a theme) and Etienne is killed off by head-to-wheel via scarf incident.

 

The draw bridge incident and a science experiment at school start to trigger several of Virginia’s memories. She’s working with Dr David, a psychologist hired to help Virginia deal with trauma she experience on her birthday several years prior. She underwent a surgery to her head after the accident at the draw bridge with her mother.

It spends most of its time waving it’s jazz hands in misdirection, trying to mislead you in each different direction. Unfortunately, that only helps the view pick out the ending… by choosing the least likely option. One way it tries to lead you in is the “nerd is a crazy stalker” route. But as soon as the camera pans on Alfred’s long, sad face – you know to discount the poor sucker as an average creep.

As Ginny continues her journey of remembering the accident all those years ago (which occurred on her birthday, no less), a lot of shit goes down with the rest of the Top Ten. Members go missing, or if you’re a love interest – you end up with a knife injury or a skewer through the noggin. I think the film wants you to think you’re going as crazy as Ginny thinks she is, but I’m too preoccupied trying waiting for a crushed head on screen.

No luck.

This is actually a film with a second half that I really don’t want to reveal too much of. It’s a lot more fun watching the craziness unfold. Unfortunately, most of it is silly and kind of takes a suspension of belief to get into, but it pays off to watch some really twisted stuff go down with Mary Ingalls’ crazy face.

Happy Birthday to Me is weird and sometimes wonderful. As I said earlier, this film has a following for its inventive death scenes. To be honest, I wonder if I watched an edited version since what I was watching never really showed much. Much of the gore was left up to the imagination.

Never at any point could I really understood Virginia as a character. At moments she seemed fragile and sweet, but then was seductive and vindictive at times. In the end, I tried attributing this to the twist in the film, but it never really adds up since the changes in character are always her – crazy or not. It’s like the writers couldn’t really decide what sort of character they wanted leading the film. But that being said, I think the film has plenty of personality. I especially loved the sets and the way the weather always looked so sad and miserable.

And I’m not buying that ending. The twist is supposed to be shocking, but it was actually entirely unbelievable. Plus kind of guessable by process of elimination. Sure horror films aren’t exactly known for their basis in reality, but even some of the more shocking endings (like Sleepaway Camp) are both shocking and (somewhat) believable. But I suppose that’s why I didn’t ever see the ending coming.

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