February 11, 2017


Anyone doubting the influence of giallo films on the North American slasher need look no further than HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, a 1981 Canadian shocker that takes the majority of its cues from the giallo playbook. The film is essentially a whodunit with the feel of something like THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK, a giallo with a similar narrative thrust in that it focuses mainly on one young woman whose grasp on reality is so shaky that she may or may not be responsible for bloody murder. While the comparison with that particular giallo film ends there, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME shares several giallo elements, like the black gloved killer, the heaps of red herrings, an over-complicated twist ending, and a motive built on ridiculous circumstance and shaky psychology. If you're a fan of Italian stalk and slash murder mysteries, you'll feel right at home here. 

The film follows Virginia, a young woman with some serious emotional problems after suffering brain damage in a car accident that also killed her drunk, belligerent mother. Virginia has undergone experimental brain therapy for her injuries. She has also been seeing a shrink to help her cope with her repressed memories and emotional scars. Virginia spends most of her time hanging out with a group of rich kids at her University (they're referred to collectively as “The Ten”, a not-so-subtle hint at the films potential body count). They're basically wealthy layabouts, spending all their time at a local tavern, attending sporting events and engaging in fleeting romances.

But something unfortunately nasty is about to befall The Ten. One by one, they're picked off by an unknown killer. As the disappearances mount, so does Virginia's stress level. Coupled with the slowly returning memories of the fatal car accident, it's all a bit too much for our poor Final Girl (that's not even remotely a spoiler, by the way; there's a reason she's named Virginia, after all). She begins hallucinating and losing time. Worse, she begins to think that maybe she is the one responsible for all the disappearances. Is Virginia really the killer? Maybe it's Steve, the loose cannon with the warped sense of humor? Or maybe it's Arthur, the quiet weirdo with the taxidermy hobby? Could it be Virginia's shrink, the esteemed Dr. Faraday, an older man with a slightly odd obsession with his young patient? 

Do you kids at home know?

The solution to the puzzle definitely comes out of left field, culminating in a Scooby-Doo styled ridiculous unmasking of the killer. In a way, the ending is perfect for this type of film (and to be fair, gialli are also known for their head scratching reveals). Simply put, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME doesn't make a lick of logical sense. Its a film wrapped in a cocoon of psycho-babble and pseudo-psychology, and no matter how forcefully the film states its tripe, none of it ever feels like a satisfactory explanation for the goings on in the narrative. It's also one of those films that tries to hint at its final revelation through back story exposition and flashbacks, but they're so muddled and vague that you couldn't reasonably put those pieces together without a hefty dose of hindsight. For more than half its running time, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME feels like its just making it up as it goes along, peppering in exposition here and there in a desperate attempt to have it all make sense, and when it reaches its finale, all that's left to do is go out as absurdly as possible.

But the other half of the film ditches the psycho-babble for far less serious minded slasher entertainment. Its this half of the film that works best, with enough twists and turns, semi relatable characters and spilled blood to warrant a viewing. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME was directed by J. Lee Thompson, the man responsible for such great films as CAPE FEAR (the original), THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and BEFORE WINTER COMES, and his directorial skill shines through the otherwise pedestrian material. There's a good deal of visual ingenuity on display here and Thompson keeps the movie pressing forward, even when the gooey psycho-nonsense threatens to derail it.

So what we have is a tale of two films. We have a thoroughly unconvincing psychological thriller about a woman whose guilt and trauma might have given rise to a murderous fugue state, and we have a simple and reductive slasher film about a group of kids being crushed, slashed, stabbed and otherwise manhandled by someone with serious impulse control issues. The former is undeniably the weaker affair, a statement I have to issue with a sad heart as there is far more interesting material to be mined from psychosis and guilt than there will ever be from simplistic slasher action. But damn it, the slasher action on display here is good enough for me to recommend HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, albeit with reservations that should be obvious by now. It's a decent enough time waster, but sadly, that's all it is.

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