Monday, October 30, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Happy Birthday to Me

Film: Happy Birthday to Me
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!

Halloween was probably the first horror movie to be named after a holiday, but it was probably Friday the 13th that really popularized the idea of it. Halloween, after all, is a true classic of the slasher genre because it’s a truly masterful film. As good as it is, it’s one that is difficult to duplicate. Friday the 13th is also a genre classic, but it’s also pretty low rent in a lot of ways, and a lot easier to copy. In the years that followed, pretty much every holiday got its own slasher eventually, which made a film like Happy Birthday to Me an inevitability.

The ground that we are going to cover here is going to feel like it’s old hat if you’re a fan of the genre. For the time, it might have been relatively fresh, but there have been plenty of films that have used insanity or something like it to move the plot along. We’re going to mainly be concerned with Ginny Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson), a member of what is called the “Top Ten,” the most popular students at an elite school, all of whom are dripping with money and social power. Before we get too involved with Ginny, though, we’re going to see one of the Top Ten, Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson), get offed.

We’re also going to get introduced to the rest of the clique, who are interchangeable, so I’m not going to spend much time discussing them. The important event here is that the gang plays a game of chicken with a drawbridge, and this causes Ginny, who is the newest member of the group, to freak out. We’ll find out why eventually, and it’s a giant hole in the plot and one of the bigger problems with the movie. The members of the clique start getting bumped off, and we see who does this a few times—which plays into the shock ending of the film. And, eventually we get to that ending after everyone has been whittled down.

A major part of the plot is Ginny’s past. Over the course of the film, we learn that Ginny and her mother were in a terrible accident that involved the drawbridge. In something that doesn’t actually make a great deal of sense, we learn that Ginny had experimental surgery on her brain to restore her brain tissue. She suffers from repressed memories, and of course that procedure was entirely experimental. So, when Ginny blacks out, acts strange, or sees things, it’s kind of expected. All of this happens under the supervision of her therapist, Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford, who is slumming in this thing).

There are a number of places where Happy Birthday to Me falls on its face. We can start with the fact that the members of the Top Ten are indistinguishable. One has an accent, one wears glasses, but putting names to them isn’t worth the effort. They’re a bunch of rich assholes, which is demonstrated by their treatment of Ginny. We find out eventually that Ginny’s accident at the drawbridge happened exactly one year previously on her 17th birthday. None of the Top Ten kids came to her party, and the accident happened when her drunk mother essentially got the car stuck as the bridge was going up and they fell into the water. That being the case, why is everyone surprised when Ginny freaks out about being in a car that literally jumps the bridge? Are they that uniformed or just that self-absorbed? “Bill, who got shot twice last year, acted really strange when we dragged him to the shooting range and literally shot the pistol that was used on him right next to him. I wonder what that was about!”

The film also infantilizes Ginny a great deal. The party that no one came to looks like one for a nine-year-old, not rich kids in high school, who are likely experienced with drugs and wild behavior thanks to their money and influential parents. It looked like a tea party. And then, a year later, Ginny—who tells her mother that no one is coming to her party because they don’t know that she exists—is one of the most popular kids in the school? And how the hell did her hair frow back that fast?

It’s also worth noting that it genuinely feels like the Glenn Ford character is sexually attracted to Ginny for much of the film. I don’t know if that was intentional, but there are some big pederasty vibes going on here, and it’s unpleasant.

Happy Birthday to Me hasn’t aged well. It probably worked better in 1981, but it really falls short now. It’s oddly imbalanced as well. It’s clearly too long for the story at 111 minutes, and yet it feels like all of the characters except for a couple are complete ciphers. And the attempt at a shock ending is laughable.

I wanted to like this, but how could I?

Why to watch Happy Birthday to Me: Rich snobs getting capped.
Why not to watch: It’s far too long for what it is.


  1. I don't think I want to see Glenn Ford (though he's cool as hell) lusting after someone old enough to be his daughter. I don't remember if I've seen this though the idea of rich people getting killed is a plus.