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Happy Birthday to Me (1981) February 13th, 2022

The Happy Birthday to Me poster is a metaphor for the film itself. A kebab of entertainment with succulent cinematography/special effects, colorful but rubbery acting, and a rotten script. All of which is violently shoved down the audience’s throat. Its the kind of movie that’ll have you asking “Wait, who’s birthday is it?” and “When are they going to mention the birthday?” then finally “So, it really was about a birthday afterall?” Spoilers ahead.

Happy Birthday to Me follows Virginia, a buttoned up college student whose popular friend group are picked off one by one by a mysterious killer. Each murder brings Virginia closer to unmasking the villain. As Happy Birthday to Me progresses we begin to see there’s something wrong with Virginia. Years ago Virgina and her mother were in a violent car accident that left Virginia with traumatic brain injuries and her mother dead. Her memories of the accident return when the murders start. This coincides with other revelations deliberately designed to make the audience wonder, could our hero be the killer too? Yes. Yes she could.

Is… sorry, IS the killer too.

Happy Birthday to Me‘s full of poorly executed misdirects that waste our time and tried my patience. Here’s a couple examples: before the killer is ultimately revealed we’re taken through a revolving door of suspects. At one point a killer’s on the loose and some evidence suggest they could be one of Virginia’s best friends. GASP. But don’t get too comfy because 15-20 minutes later we’re shown scenes suggesting Virginia herself may be the killer! Tsk! But you don’t have time to grapple with that revelation because moments later the character on the poster with the kebab in their throat is seen burying a body in a flower garden (sans kebab)! That’s not exactly nonmurderer behavior! Wait a few minutes more and he’s assaulting Virginia in a church bell tower with a knife (also sans kebab)! What’s going on here?

Our view of the action in the bell tower is obscured but we soon see a puddle of blood pooling on the church floor. Suddenly the scene transitions to a hospital, Virginia is running through the hallways confused, she sees a patient vaguely resembling the friend who came after her with the knife. His face is partially covered in bloody bandages. She rushed to her psychologist for help. Did she hurt him? Did any of it happen at all?

Later, she’s back at school where the body in the flowerbed’s been discovered. It’s a medical reference skeleton with “property of this college” printed clearly on the skull. Cut to a scene in the library where the guy on the poster’s sudden appearance startles Virginia. No bandage. They laugh together. Apparently the incident with the knife in the bell tower was… a joke… that left him with a sliced hand.

“What?!” I ask exacerbated to no one. So… the killer isn’t the kebab guy? And it’s not Virginia? “Not so fast” says the movie “Virginia’s the killer after all!” At this point the movie transitions away from any mystery about who’s the killer and explicitly shows Virginia murdering her friends. One with gardening sheers to the chest, another by drowning in the tub, and finally someone (not the guy on the cover) gets kebabed to death. All the while more flashbacks help us understand Virginia’s trauma suggesting a dissociative condition we’re supposed to believe explains her inability to recall murdering her friends.

Don’t get comfortable, there’s more twists and turns up ahead. Happy Birthday to Me’s climactic revelations go like this. Years ago Virginia’s mother threw her daughter a birthday party and instructed Virginia to invite all her friends. Virginia doesn’t invite anyone because she’s not actually friends with the rich kids her mother wants her associating with. Her outraged and tipsy mother knows the truth, one of the rich kids father’s is shunning their family because he knows Virginia’s mother is lowborn. He resents her for marrying into their community’s affluent society and wants her to know her family will never belong among the elite. For reasons yet unknown, he masterminds a scheme to manipulate the social hierarchy of the local elementary schoolchildren into ostracizing Virginia. Mother and daughter drive to their mean neighbor’s house only to get caught in the middle of a rising drawbridge and crash into the river below. Virginia’s mother drowns. Years later the trauma of this terrible birthday leads Virginia to murder all the kids who didn’t show up to her party… Or so we think!

In another surprising and bizarre twist, it turns out Virginia has an identical twin sister who’s used their likeness to murder Virginia’s friends and eventually arrange their dead bodies around a table in their guest house that’s still decorated for the birthday party that never was. The old cake sits rotten on the table. Twist! With Virginia sitting at the table surrounded by her dead friends her twin begins peeling off her own face revealing she isn’t a twin at all but is actually Ann! One of the friends who didn’t show up to the party those years ago! Twist! Ann’s motivations for murdering their friends is revenge! Revenge for what? We only just learned she’s the killer, how can she have motivation enough for such ghastly acts? Turns out, Virginia’s dead mom used to shack up with Ann’s father and somehow that makes Ann and Virginia’s secret sister! Twist! Virginia wrestles a knife away from Ann and stabs her newly discovered sister to death just before a cop walks in to see the birthday girl standing over the carefully displayed bodies of her dead friends holding a murder weapon. He asks “What have you done?”

At this point, who the fuck knows?

I think the most important element of a good whodunnit slasher are plausible misdirects. Character behavior must be reasonably suspicious and motivated. The characters in Happy Birthday to Me do things that make no practical sense unless you’re using movie logic. One of Virginia’s friends is a taxidermy hobbyist dabbling in latex mask making. He corners Virginia in his room and shows her the lifelike decapitated head of the first victim. This short lived attempt at a red herring is undermined when the mask-maker is soon murdered. Add that to the buried medical reference skeleton and the bell tower knife assault scenes and you’ve got multiple instances where characters do weird unmotivated shit just to fuck with the audience. Why is it important for Ann to disguise herself as Virginia when she’s murdering their friends? Does that provide her easier access to their friends? Does it somehow lower their guard? No, it’s only because the filmmakers want the audience to believe Virginia’s the murderer!

Whodunnits need to be logically flawless lest they fall apart. Look at Scream, at any given point in that movie the killer could be just about anyone and when the killers finally unmasked you’re not asking yourself “But why did he bury that skeleton in the flowerbed?” or “ok, but why disguise yourself as another character to murder your friends?” I could sing Scream‘s praises and shit on Happy Birthday to Me all day… but it seems Scream stole Happy Birthday to Me‘s ending! Twist!

In Scream Billy and his friend Stu orchestrate a string of elaborate murders pinning them all on Billy’s girlfriend Sidney. What’s his motivation? Billy wants revenge because the affair between his father and Sidney’s mother broke up his family. Sounds like Happy Birthday to Me… to me. Add to that both Virginia and Sidney’s mothers died roughly a year before their daughters became tangled in a string of serial murders and you’ve got yourself a copy-cat-killer-movie. See? I introduced Scream as the hero last paragraph and through a couple carefully placed revelations I shifted the narrative to show our hero may actually be a villainous thief, that’s how you execute a twist!

The cinematography, set design, and especially the special effects in Happy Birthday to Me deserve special recognition. The makeup in the final ‘birthday party’ scene stands out. The craftsmanship and effort put into making that scene look incredible paid off. The shot composition, lighting, and set design are shamefully wasted on such a poorly executed story.

Happy Birthday to Me’s ideal audience is either committed horror fans who’ll watch anything with gory kills or those capable of appreciating a movie’s best qualities despite its glaring flaws.

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