Thursday, June 6, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me (J. Lee Thompson, 1981)

If you're like me, and you were a little confused by what transpires during the final moments of Happy Birthday to Me, a slasher film with more Canadian content than, oh, let's say... don't you dare say Annie Murray's vagina. Uh... with more Canadian content than... Ahh, my brain isn't working properly. I know, it's a slasher film with more Canadian content than Cynthia Dale's vagina. Yeah, I like that. If you're know the identity of Cynthia Dale's husband, than that line about the contents of her vagina is pure gold. However, if you have no idea who Cynthia Dale is, and, using common sense, you probably have no clue who her husband is either, than I'm afraid I can't help you. What I should have said was: this film is very Canadian, and moved on. But no, I had to show off. Look at me, my references are so off-kilter, please love me! Anyway, like most Canadian exploitation movies from 1970s and 1980s, this particular entry in the slasher free-for-all that was the early '80s tries to hide its Canadian-ness like it were a festering neck boil. Throbbing just beneath the collar of your polo shirt, it's Canuck temperament is just waiting for someone to come along and say the immortal words: Do you want me to squeeze that unsightly nodule pulsating on the back of your neck? You do? Okay, just let me score this game-winning goal against the Soviet Union in the Canada Cup and I'll be right with you. Unfortunately, no one comes along to squeeze your boil. In other words, the film's true Canadian character remains hidden from view. Yeah, hidden from view to those out there languishing in a pit of Canadian ignorance. I, on the other hand, have never spent anytime in that pit. Oh, sure, I don't watch hockey, I rarely ever wear flannel, and I've never been inside a Tim Hortens, but I do know that Lenore Zann, cult movie queen and the voice of Rogue on X-Men: The Animated Series, is the MLA for Truro-Bible Hill.
Meaning, my knowledge of Canadian culture goes deeper than any of you could possibly imagine. And I can prove it. Now, making smug allusions to my childhood is not something I'm comfortable doing, but I did watch The Hilarious House of Frightenstein as a kid. I know, eh? 'Nuff said. Getting back to my original point, the luminous Lenore Zann is one of the stars of Happy Birthday to Me. That's right. All that blathering I did just was actually pertinent to the movie I'm currently writing about.
Hell, even the bit about Cynthia Dale was pertinent. How so?!? I'll tell you how so. You see, Cynthia Dale starred in Heavenly Bodies, the greatest leotard-centric movie of all-time. You mean to say that Cynthia Dale is in Happy Birthday to Me? I wish. But not quite. You didn't let me finish. The writer-director of Heavenly Bodies, Lawrence Dane, and the film's male lead, Richard Rebiere, both appear in this film as actors.
While all that is fascinating stuff, let's stir this ship into more conventional waters, shall we? Welcome to Crawford University, where the so-called "top ten" rule the roost. Oh, look. Here comes one of them now. While I can't see any evidence of a roost being ruled, they do have a certain swagger about the way they walk. Maybe it has something to do with white tights that are currently holding her legs in a nylon stranglehold, or maybe it doesn't; please have something to do with her white tights, I don't ask for much.
Anyway, if you're a fan of watching Lesleh Donaldson get murdered, you'll love the film's opening scene, as she totally gets murdered in it. And like her legendary date with slasher movie infamy in Curtains, Lesleh's demise is long and drawn out. In other words, it's just the way we like it. Playing Bernadette O'Hara (you can tell she's in the top ten by her purple and grey striped scarf), Lesleh is choked by an unseen assailant in her car (remember, kiddies, always check the backseat for leather-gloved strangers before starting your car). Thrashing her white nylon-adorned legs about the car's interior with a reckless, "I'm about to be straight-up asphyxiated up this here Buick," kind of abandon, Bernadette makes a valiant attempt not to get strangled to death. And you know what? That effort sort of pays off. Sort of? Yeah, she eventually gets her throat slasher with a razor. But you got to hand it to her, she's in, or, she was in, the top ten for a reason.
Where was Bernadette going before she got killed, you ask? She was heading over to the local university watering hole to have a pint with the other members of the top ten, that's where. Well, as we all know, she doesn't quite make it. The exalted top ten have already been reduced by one, and the film has barely gotten started. And get this, Bernadette was apparently friends with the killer.
Did you just say...yeah, Bernadette recognized the killer. No, the other part. The top ten have been reduced to nine? Yeah, that part. You mean to say that I've got to keep track of nine characters? It looks like it. Fine. Well, they better kill off a bunch of them over the next ten to fifteen minutes, because there's no way I'm going to be able keep track of all these snobby pricks. You do realize that you just called Lenore Zann a snobby prick? What? Oh, crap. You're right. She's in the top ten. I didn't mean that. What I should have said was, I can't believe Lenore Zann is friends with these assholes.
After nearly starting a riot with a group of drunk Shriners, the nine members of the top ten spill out onto the street. Hearing that the nearby bascule bridge is about to open, they jump into their respective vehicles, assign each vehicle a number, and proceed to race toward the bridge. A variation on the classic game of chicken, Etienne (Michel-René Labelle) hops aboard his motorcycle and makes the jump with relative ease, then Rudi (David Eisner), with Maggie (Lenore Zann) sitting next to him, makes it safely in his car. Following closely behind Rudi is Ann (Tracey Bregman), who clears the bridge. The final two cars have Steve Maxwell (Matt Craven) behind the wheel of his car and Greg (Richard Rebiere) behind the wheel of his Trans Am. However, unlike Steve, Greg has two passengers, Amelia (Lisa Langlois) and Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson), a girl who is clearly not into this.
Um, before I continue. I would like to do a quick head count–you know, to see if I missed anyone. Okay, I counted eight. The reason there are eight instead of nine is because Alfred (Jack Blum) didn't participate in the jump. Now, you would think the reason he didn't jump with the rest of them might have something to do with his outsider status in the group (despite being in the top ten, the others seem to pick on him). But the more logical explanation probably had something to do with the fact that he drives a scooter. And there's no way a scooter would come close making it over the bridge.
Backing out at the last minute, Steve watches Greg, who seems determined to make it, shoot past him. Oh, sure, they make it. But nevertheless, Virginia freaks out (she gives hissy-fits a bad name). As we'll soon find out, Virginia and the bascule bridge have a bit of a history with one another; a tragic history. In fact, you could even say it's a secret history, as the movie has many things in common with the Donna Tartt novel of the same name.
Even though Happy Birthday to Me is directed by J. Lee Thompson (10 to Midnight) and has Timothy Bond (One Night Only) listed as a co-writer, you won't find much to savour if you happen to be a pervert. The only reason I mention this is because the film's lone pervert moment, besides the opening scene with Lesleh Donaldson, takes place when Virginia runs home after the bridge incident. After having a dull chat with her father (Lawrence Dane), Virginia, or "Ginny," as her dad likes to call her, goes to her room to change for bed. She doesn't know it, but Etienne has followed her home and is lurking in the bushes. Oh, wait, no, he's moved from lurking to stalking. Yep, he's now outside her bedroom window. All this, by the way, is a veiled attempt to paint Etienne as a suspect. And you know what? I ain't buying it.
At any rate, there's a close up shot of Ginny's not even close to being granny panties languishing on the carpet of her room during the Etienne stalking sequence. Actually, the pantie close up is, believe or not, integral to the plot, as the very same panties are seen later on in the film. So, technically, the pantie close up wasn't gratuitous. Which, I have to admit, fills me with great sadness. I guess I'll have to take solace in the swooshing nature of the long, scholarly skirts Melissa Sue Anderson and Tracey Bregman wear to science class the very next day, 'cause this film seems to be going out of it's way not to be sleazy. Mmmm, look at those skirts swoosh.
Speaking of swooshing, there's a scene where the top seven attend a soccer match (two are players, the others are spectators). You mean the sight of David Eisner in tight purple shorts? Actually, that's not what I'm referring to. Though, speaking as a guy who has seen Sleepaway Camp more than six times, I do like men in shorts, especially the super-short variety they wore in the early '80s. No, I'm talking about are the Crawford cheerleaders. Oh, yeah, the cheerleaders. If memory serves me correctly, and it usually does, there are upskirts aplenty in that scene. Exactly. And there's nothing more perverted than leering at a cheerleader (I had my eye on the cheerleader with the letter 'A' on her chest) with the hope that her skirt might rise as result of all that cheer-based jostling they tend to get up to when cheering. And given the skimpy nature of their skirts, it doesn't take much cause them to rise.   
If you noticed that I said top seven as supposed to top nine. Congrats, you're obviously paying attention. No, you see, two of their ranks have gone missing. Well, they think they're missing, we all know that one of them had their face torn up by a motorcycle engine (here's some free advice, don't work on your motorcycle with the engine running while wearing a scarf) and another had their throat crushed by a barbell. However, don't expect all the kills to be this inventive. I mean, other than a nasty encounter with a shish kebab and that horrible flashback sequence involving brain surgery, you're not got going to find much as far as gore goes. As for the story. Well, we get a ton of misleading plot twists.
Hi, my name is Alfred. And I'm the biggest red herring the horror genre has ever seen. (Call me crazy, but I thought Alfred was hot. He's got that Keith Gordon/Ron Mael thing going for him.)
These plot twists all lead us to the film's big Scooby-Doo-style ending. Which, I guess, was sort of satisfying (if anything it explains the film's title). Do I think the film could have had more scenes that featured Lenore Zann? Of course I do; she's awesome. But I have found that you can't always get you want. This is especially true when it comes to Canadian horror films that pretend to take place in New England, but were actually shot in Montréal (according to my exhaustive research, the car stunts were filmed in Phoenix, New York).

video uploaded by oldhockstatterplace


  1. Going to have to check this one out, thanks for the reco!

  2. I just got this movie from Netflix, although it will probably be a few days before I can check it out for myself. You said there's a dearth of pervert moments in this film; does that mean no gratuitous female nudity? Please, say it ain't so.

  3. You're welcome, Tommy.

    I'm sorry, NFM, there's no gratuitous female nudity in Happy Birthday to Me. :(

  4. I now have this on Blu-ray.

    I love the theme song, for the record.

  5. I didn't think the word "Blu-ray" was in your vocabulary. I have this image of you playing the Frankie Goes to Hollywood video game while listening to Ratt on 8-track. ;)

  6. Not half-bad. Only two complaints:
    1) It needed gratuitous female nudity
    2) They should have just chosen one twist ending and stuck with it, instead of trying to pile on several at once.

  7. Some gratuitous nudity would have been nice, but I was mildly satisfied with the subtle moments of perversion peppered throughout this film.

  8. I would see the big black VHS box for this in the video store as a kid. It always freaked me out. Death by kabob. Having your spinal cord severed with the horrid taste of bell pepper in your mouth. Revolting. Still creeps me out.

    Anywho, J. Lee Thompson was one of the most prolific British-born filmmakers of all time. Several classic genre defining works filmed in England and the US, especially in the fields of war, realism, adventure, psychological thrillers, and Ape Law:
    - "Ice Cold in Alex" (1958)
    - "Tiger Bay" (1959)
    - "The Guns of Navarone" (1961)
    - "Cape Fear" (1962)
    - "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" (1972)
    - "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" (1973)

    Now that is one versatile director.

  9. "I guess I'll have to take solace in the swooshing nature of the long, scholarly skirts....."

    Ooooh yesss. Ohh yes I will~~~

  10. just watched an older, tougher Lenore Zann try knifing a girl in prison in The L Word