Saturday, October 15, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Happy Birthday to Me (J. Lee Thompson)

Though Happy Birthday to Me doesn’t quite live up to the poster’s hyperbolic promise of “six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever seen”, mainly due to MPAA’s strident editing of violence from slasher movies in the decade, it does deserves some props for featuring murder scenes whose methodology is more inventive than your typical butcher knife or machete slaying. And yes, someone does get a shish kebab shoved through their mouth. And if you have ever experienced any scarf related trauma, this is definitely not the film for you.

While featuring the typical cast of co-eds as potential fodder, including the nerd, the shy girl, the smart ass, and a new favorite rarity, the French jock, as well as the typical Ten Little Indians mystery and giallo flashback structure so favored by the slasher genre of the era, it does differ in a few respects. Instead of some inexperienced but hungry young buck behind the camera, J. Lee Thompson (Guns of the Navarone, the original Cape Fear, several Charles Bronson’s 70’s/80 ‘s programmers), who was the ripe age of 67 when the film was released, directs. The film also gives a significant role to 50’s film noir mainstay and Pa Kent in the 1978 film, Superman, Glen Ford, was developed and released via a major studio (versus being merely distributed a la the first Friday the 13th film), and at an hour and fifty minutes, runs a good twenty minutes longer than its many counterparts.

Ultimately the extended running time is felt early, as it slogs along slowly. Part of the problem is that though we spend a longer amount of time with the murder fodder, they are still barely distinguishable from one another save for the main lead, Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson) and future character actor Matt Craven. In an attempt to conceal the identity of the killer, Thompson and screenwriters John CW Saxton, Peter Jobin and Timothy Bond, go to unintentionally comic lengths to draw suspicion on everyone (including having a character have a life like severed head he crafted sitting on a dish with red paint below!). The flashbacks to a past traumatic event in Virginia’s life are handled very well, intriguing us just right with bits and pieces to keep us tantalized before the final reveal. The film really picks up in the last act, and blazes towards a twisted conclusion. Unfortunately, not knowing when to stop, a final twist was added late in the game, and seeing how it was probably conceived in the shooting stage, it feels tacked on and weakens some of the impact of the otherwise awesome conclusion

1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

Yeah, you got it right. The final twist there just tosses it all too far askew!

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