Well, not immediately, anyway. More specifically, not until after I saw the very similarly themed Madhouse and the pretty good documentary Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film which... gave away part of the ending of this film. Damn!
This had two affects. The first being that the relative charm found in Madhouse was suddenly reduced to the derivative lameness it probably was. Although Madhouse was originally released (as There Was a Little Girl) in 1981, the same year as Happy Birthday to Me, the similarities are as undeniable as the fact that the decline of the Western Civilization will be traced back to the idiocy of Radio Commercials! It's either that or a synergy not seen since Unhinged matched the ending of Sleepaway Camp. Was there something in the Horror Water back in the early 1980s? They sure seemed to rip each other off fast, man!
The second was that many of the surprises and suspense building that director J. Lee Thompson drew from John C.W. Saxton's script (written with John Beaird, Timothy Bond and Peter Jobin) were all but lost on me, seeing as how I knew where this was going, how and why. For those of you who have had the ending spoiled for you (by any source) before you see the film, I urge you to go ahead and watch it anyway! There are still some great surprises that could turn what you know on its head and leave you wondering why you didn't see this sooner.
And I'm not just talking about the fact that the star is Melissa Sue Anderson whose final episode of Little House on the Prairie had yet to air by the time this bloody horror film was released. Yeah, I think we all know that it was Nellie Olson who was more likely to show up covered in gore somewhere. Mary Ingalls? Not so much. Maybe... Little Madhouse on the Prairie! That might work. Write that down!
Moving on. Anderson plays a cute and popular young high school student named Virginia Wainright who lost her mother (Sharon Acker) in a car accident years before, leaving her alone with her goof ball of a dad (Lawrence Dane). Luckily she has some more reliable help to get her through this in the form of her shrink Dr. David Faraday (played by... no way: Glenn Ford). In most ways, "Ginny" doesn't seem to have all that many problems. She's pretty, has lots of friends (she's in a clique called "The Top Ten" even) and a fair amount of funds to go with them. Further, judging from her Lingerie scenes, she's got a really nice body... which helps reduce the whole "problems" count, I would say.
Digging a little deeper it looks like cotton-clad Gin' has a few problems that she still has to work through, most of which have to do with her (understandable) mommy issues. Digging just a bit deeper than that and allowing for some time to progress, it also seems that a lot of her friends and rivals are being disappeared piecemeal by your standard, silent and unseen psycho killer. Worse, what we, the audience, see is a lot more than what the characters themselves see so the villain or villains get to keep doing their thing until the titular day rolls around.
Truth to tell, friends as hot as hers are sure to be missed. There's Ann (Tracey E. Bregman), Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson), Amelia (Lisa Langlois) and the super sexy (but still never nude) Maggie (played by one of my favorites, Lenore Zann). Wow! Top Ten is right! How could anybody want to do these ladies in?
Oh, yeah, Ginny's got some guy friends also, if you care. Guys I wouldn't be surprised to find dead, like French Douche (and panty thief) Etienne (Michel Rene Labelle), Gym-Rat Douche Greg (Richard Rebiere), Nerdy Douche Alfred (Jack Blum), sense-of-humor-challenged douche Rudi (David Eisner) and Honkey-Afro sportin' douche Steve (Matt Craven).
The problem is that any and every one of these characters, guy or girl, could well be the next victim... and any and every one of these characters, guy or girl, could actually be the villain. What's more, as each "victim" turns up missing (with no corpse found by the cops), they can't be ruled out as a suspect even after their on-screen attacks. Throw in the fact that one or more of these ungrateful meddling kids just might be completely insane and you've got more than just a horror flick, but a Groovy Mystery on your hands as well!
It all leads up to a suspenseful and surprising finish (regardless of what you may have already heard about the ending). Along the way there are some inventive "Slasher Type" deaths such as death-by-free-weights, death-by-garden-shears, death-by-motor-bike and yes, oh yes, since it's right there on the poster, you get the much-discussed Death-By-Shish-Kebab scene. The poster even details which character each death happens to... but don't worry, the poster gets most of them wrong. Heh-heh! Great marketing department, there, Columbia Pictures! At least we can't accuse you of TOO many spoilers!
Interestingly enough, the goriest scenes in the movie aren't even the slasher murders. No, there's a certain legitimate surgical procedure that is chronicled in graphic detail... and, trust me, you won't want to eat while it's on. That's just one of the ways that Thompson, Saxton and company keep the uneasy suspense going in a Canadian Flick that, by all rights, should be a lame B-Movie.
Somehow it works, however, thanks to some good surprises, interesting suspense-building and legitimate shocks. The acting doesn't hurt either, nor do the actresses, especially during a certain Lenore Zann swimsuit scene. Ah, yes. Lenore Zann. Politician, scream queen, topless contributor to The L Word. Is there anything she can't do? Ah, she even voiced Rogue in the X-Men cartoon. Sigh. I could go on and on about Zann... and maybe I will... in the next reel!
Still, Happy Birthday to Me is not a perfect film, of course. While it's interesting how much better it is than expected, let's not make a genius out of a savant here. This is, after all, an early-80s slasher flick with a lot of the same clichés and motifs that we see in a great many of these from the same time period. There's an undeniable sameness in some of the shocks, when compared to similar films from before and since. And then there's that uncanny similarity to Madhouse. It's hard to imagine such similarities without one student cribbing from the other's paper, but hell, let's let that stand as either a remarkable coincidence or a testament to the immediate influence that Happy Birthday to Me had in its first year.
Happy Birthday to Me might not be among the first words in slasher horror (it's somewhere in between Prom Night, Black Christmas and The Burning in its classic cult following), but even at its most derivative it has its fair share of surprises and unique elements, not to mention acting by Anderson, Ford and Zann to earn Three Stars out of Five! Sure, you could do better, but you could also do a whole hell of a lot worse than to come to this very birthday party! So, until the big day rolls around and I open each one of my presents, then look up with a shocked expression and shout "A HUMAN HEAD!" (that's really only funny once), I'll see you in the next reel!
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Yes, the Happy Birthday song is copyrighted.
Everybody knows that, it's no longer that interesting.
Tell me it was copywrited while Zann and Bregman settle into a 69 position and THAT I'd find interesting.
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