Monday, February 22, 2010

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


As civilization crumbles in slow motion before our very eyes, people become ruder at the movies. There's no getting around that. Especially bad are girls who think that a night out with their man grants them impunity, like he'll throw his hipster fedora Oddjob-style and decapitate anyone who tells her to quiet down. Even the great New Beverly Cinema is not immune. Weeks after they'd put up a sign in the box office prohibiting glass bottle beer, bad people are still breaking the rules and the bottles. This wasn't a problem before but the selfish don't know from privilege. One of the MCs has even taken to warning people not be dicks since some of these movies are funny enough on their own. I must not be the only one who's sent a pissed off email to them lately. If the Beverly's not safe to enjoy trash respectfully, no place is.

The reason I rant here is that Happy Birthday To Me was pretty decent when I saw it on a Saturday midnight show in spite of a lot of drunken ironists but because of them, I might be giving the film more credit than it deserves. My attempt at unironic enjoyment was motivated by the same reason every drunk joker in the audience showed up to impress their friends that Saturday night: it's a slasher movie named after a calendar appointment.

Produced in Canada under the Canadian Film Development Corporation, that too short-lived for movie lovers when the socialists sponsored genre movies instead of indigenous fishing community documentaries, Happy Birthday is a confluence of unlikely low and high art workmen both local and outsourced. Surely none of the prejudiced hecklers at the screening would have guessed that J. Lee Thompson had also directed the original Cape Fear. His suspense scenes are well paced and occasionally jarring. A couple nighttime scenes in a graveyard and one daytime bell tower murder sequence evoke the best old fashioned thriller sensibilities. The gore quotient is also genteel. Despite the tagline's promise of six of the most bizarre murders we've ever seen, they're tastefully suggested rather than displayed and spaced out miles apart from each other. That poster image is probably more explicit than anything in the actual film.

The whitebread prep school where the teen meat attend adds another unexpected layer of class, they're so basically well behaved that this could have been an Agatha Christie story. No one gets naked - these might be the first kids in slasher movie history to get offed for not fornicating enough. The only wild and crazy behavior comes at the start, when the gang jumps their car over a rising bridge like The Dukes of Montreal, and wouldn't you know it, this sole act of irresponsibility factors heavily into the story's final twists and revelation of the killer.

The ludicrous ending is by far the best part of the movie, and takes almost a whole half hour to finish thanks to the generous (for a slasher) length of 110 minutes. After all the amiable suspense and unspectacular deaths of a few fresh faced boring young Canadians, a twist regarding the killer's identity starts up and just continues spiraling like a corkscrew. Then someone's mask gets ripped off, like on Scooby-Doo, no kidding. With no less than four writers, one uncredited and none being J. Lee Thompson, Happy Birthday has perhaps the most overwritten and convoluted ending to any body count movie ever. The sole story credit belongs to John C. W. Saxton, co-writer of the xploitation classics Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and Class of 1984. The other two credited writers came from an ABC mystery movie of the week, while uncredited touchup came from the hand of John Beaird - writer of that most reappraised CFDC slasher of late, My Bloody Valentine.

Despite the solid direction, getting the rewards of the concluding insanity is dull going. At 110 minutes there should have been a lot more than six bizarre murders, and the bland young victims don't even die interestingly. Somewhere under the clutter there's a solid flick, but only genre connoisseurs will be able to take away in their memory the film they wanted. Happily, the killer does sing "Happy Birthday To Me" at the end, and on that level it's a success. Snickering hipsters who can't even get past the title should kindly take their seven bucks over to the Silent Movie Theater in West Hollywood, where that won't even get them in the door.

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