VIDEO ARCHIVES WEEK: Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

VIDEO ARCHIVES NOTES: This movie was discussed on the October 25, 2022 episode of the Video Archives podcast and can be found on their site here.

Seriously, how many great movies were directed by J. Lee Thompson? The original Cape FearConquest for the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud10 to MidnightKinjite: Forbidden Subjects and so many more.

Virginia “Ginny” Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson, TV’s Little House on the Prarie) is popular, rich and pretty. She’s a member of the biggest clique at the fancy pants Crawford Academy — the Top Ten. These snobbish, rich and rude assholes rule the school and — if you’re anything like me — you’ll celebrate their brutal deaths. Just look at how they act at their local pub, the Silent Woman. Total dicks.

One night, Top Ten member Bernadette (Canadian scream queen Lesleh Donaldson, who has been in several films we’ve featured recently) is attacked in her car by someone without a face. She plays dead, then finds someone she knows. As she explains what has just happened, the real killer slices her throat.

The rest of the gang? They could give a shit. They’re all at the bar, putting mice into old men’s beer. It’s enough to make you want to be the killer and wipe them out. But it gets worse. They play chicken on a drawbridge and are all nearly killed. Ginny even yells “mother!” as the car goes over the opening bridge. Everyone survives, but Ginny runs away, all the way to the cemetery where she tells her mother that she’s been accepted by all of the rich kids.

When she gets home, her father yells about how she’s out past curfew. And while that’s happening, Etienne, one of the Top Ten, sneaks out a pair of her underwear.

The next day, Ginny and Ann arrive late to class, leading principal Mrs. Patterson to put the entire Top Ten on notice, threatening a ban on their favorite bar. Soon, a frog dissection leads to Ginny having flashbacks that she shares with Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford, slumming it after a career in films like SupermanGilda and Pocketful of Miracles), her psychiatrist.

This is where Happy Birthday to Me pulls the rug out from under us — thirty minutes or more into the film. After the accident at the drawbridge, she underwent an experimental medical procedure to restore her brain tissue.

Meanwhile, the Top Ten are thankfully getting bumped off, one by one. Etienne dies like Isadora Duncan, his scarf caught in the wheels of his motorcycle. Greg gets killed lifting weights. Here’s where the film has a bit of a giallo feel — all of the murders are done by black-gloved hands, until Alfred (Jack Blum, Meatballs) follows Ginny to her mother’s grave, only for our heroine to stab him with garden shears. What?!?

During Ginny’s 18th birthday weekend, her father leaves town, so she goes to a school dance. There, she invites Steve (Matt Craven, Meatballs) home to smoke weed, drink wine and eat kabobs, as you do. However, while feeding Steve, she stabs him in the mouth, a murder so memorable it ended up on the poster and box cover.

The next morning, Ann comes over while Ginny takes a shower and has a major flashback. Four years ago, she was having a birthday party but none of the Top Ten would come. Her mother flipped out, got drunk and tried to take her to Ann’s competing party, where a groundskeeper told her that she would never be anything more than the town whore. Her mother gets drunker and drives off the bridge from earlier in the film, where she drowns and Ginny barely survives.

Ginny begins to think that she has killed all of her friends, including Ann who she finds in the tub. Dr. Faraday has no answers, so she kills him with a fireplace poker.

Whew! What happens next? Well, Ginny’s dad gets home and sees blood all over the place, as well as Amelia (Lisa Langlois, PhobiaThe Nest) outside in shock. Running to the cemetery, he sees his wife’s grave has been opened and Dr. Faraday’s body is in it. Then, entering the guest quarters, every one of the Top Ten members’ bodies are arranged around a table, celebrating a birthday.

Ginny arrives with a cake, singing to herself, when she slices her father’s throat. He never sees that his daughter is really there, the only living guest at the party. The second Ginny, the killer, screams about having done all of this for Ginny, but it turns out that she is Ann! The girls are half-sisters, sharing a father! What?!?

Ginny escapes and stabs Ann, just as the police arrive to ask, “What have you done?” The film fades to black — never letting us know if Ginny will be jailed or proven innocent. Then the film closes with a goofy — yet awesome — closing song by Stevie Wonder’s ex-wife Syreeta.

Columbia Pictures went full William Castle promoting this movie, suggesting theaters re-create the film’s closing scene in their lobby, inviting people to celebrate their birthday party while watching the movie, preventing anyone from entering the film during its last ten minutes and also conducting a scream contest for radio stations.

Happy Birthday to Me arrived in theaters at the height of the slasher boom, but it defies expectations. At times, it’s a giallo. At other times, it’s supernatural. And others, it’s a teen comedy. It’s also crazy that such a directorial talent made it — albeit one who was rumored to spray blood all over the set to make the film even gorier — and that Glenn Ford is in a slasher!

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