FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE...beware yon spoilers!

Jul 18, 2005

Recess

I'd been hoping to continue my "What makes a slasher?" series, but I've been so so so mired in comic book deadlines that it's been difficult for me to do much else besides sling ink. I did take time out to watch a movie, though- 1981's Happy Birthday to Me , starring Melissa Sue Anderson and her extremely dry, damaged hair.

Anderson is Ginny, a member of the "Top Ten" students at prep school- they're the rich kids, the popular ones- and they all wear matching stripey scarves and black leather gloves. This serves to unite them in their coolness, because stripey scarves are cool.

The movie wastes no time getting to the goods as Top Tenner Bernadette is offed on her way to hang out with the gang at the pub. While starting her car, she's strangled by a black gloved hand that pops up from the back seat. In a move I've never before seen in one of these flicks, Bernadette plays dead. The killer loosens his grip for a moment and Bernadette runs out of the car. I am so adding that to my repertoire of moves! Now, my repertoire totals 1. Lest we think Bernadette is too smart, however, she doesn't exactly run away when she escapes the car. Instead, she runs about 50 feet away and stands there. The killer comes again...and she runs a bit further away. "Get the fuck outta there" is clearly not in her vocabulary. Then, a figure approaches that Bernadette takes to be a friend- "Oh, it's you- you have to help me!". But alas, out comes a straight razor and it's bye bye Bernie. So...now we know that the killer is a friend- and one of the Top Ten! Those gloves...those gloves! Any one of them could be the killer!

But...which one? At the pub, we meet the rest of the gang: there's Etienne- the exchange student, Rudi- the obnoxious one, the bland girlfriends, and Alfred- the nerdy taxidermy student. How he fits into the clique, I'm not really sure, but his course of study provides ample opportunity for the gang to make side-splitting puns along the lines of "Aw, stuff it, Arnold!" The Top Tenners are forced to leave the pub after they antagonize a bunch of Shriners so much that fisticuffs are threatened. When they all split, we get to see how cool they really are...the drawbridge down the road is going up, and they all jump the gap in their expensive cars. When the car Ginny's in goes over the gap, Ginny totally and completely flips out. We're talking hysterics, screaming, thrashing about...and when the car stops, she flees toward home- and a quick stop at her mother's graveside. Well, it was on the way, after all. While trimming the grass around the headstone, Ginny tells her mother not to worry- "They all like me now, mother...". Hmm. Whatever could she mean?

The next day in school, The Top Ten...well, Nine, now that Bernadette's gone...are all crammed next to each other at a lab table for science class. The professor gives a little electrical jolt to some severed frog legs. This not only causes the muscles in the legs to contract, but it also causes an extreme closeup on Ginny, as the screen turns red and the camera spins- flashback! Something something Virginia-as-guinea-pig something brain surgery something scientific mumbo jumbo something something salamanders have regenerative qualities so we'll use them on your brain tissue to help after the accident something WHAT?! OK, so Ginny's got some past issues that will be coming to light eventually. Pretty soon, everything is triggering a flashback for Ginny, from a scolding by the headmistress to someone telling Alfred that the prosthetic Bernadette head he made (yeah, you read that right) is sick...sick...sick...sick...sick...echo into grisly brain surgery scene!

Meanwhile, someone's still offing the cool kids. The exchange student gets his stripey scarf tossed into a spinning motorcycle wheel- while it's still around his neck. Face grinding yuckiness. Greg, the jock of the bunch, is doing the benchpress when a familiar figure comes in. Greg asks the figure to put more weight on the crossbar. As Greg struggles with the enormously heavy bar, the black gloved hands (gasp!) reach for a 25-pounder and drop it squarely on Greg's...err...Greg Jr. Greg drops the bar onto his neck, killing himself in splatty fashion. Bleargh.

It's not just the the matching outfits that lead us down many a red herring path; there's also the fact that all of these kids are just plain weird. They stare at each other vacantly, slightly menacingly, and say things like "I have a knife..." in a calm, creepy serial killer type voice. They make stuffed heads of each other and steal each other's undergarments. Pfft. Rich kids. The trickery is finally over and the killer is revealed when Ginny once again visits her mother's grave after dark. Uh oh, here comes Alfred sneaking up behind Ginny. As he reaches into his pocket to grab something, Ginny turns around and stabs him in the gut with her trimmers! What the...? Ginny? But Alfred...he was reaching for something...and when he falls dying, his hand slowly opens to reveal what he was reaching for. A single...white...rose. It is such a tragic and tender scene, I'm not lying when I tell you that I cried. OK, yes I am. But Ginny's the killer! Now...to the dance!

That's right- the dance. Ginny's dancing with Steve, the druggy Top Tenner, and she's acting awfully aggressively. She invites him back to her place- her dad's away on business, you see. He'll be back for her birthday on Sunday, but for now they have the house to themselves, and killin' just makes a gal so dang horny! They have a little wine in front of the fire and Ginny goes to fetch the snack: shish-ka-bobs. She starts feeding Steve chunks of meat- how romantic. The next thing you know, she's jammed the skewer right into the back of his mouth! Dead!

With the help of her shrink, Ginny finally pieces together her fractured memories to help the viewer understand what the hell is going on. Years ago, Ginny's mom planned a birthday party for her, to which all the rich kids were invited. No one showed- they all went to another party instead. This sends Ginny's mom into a drunken tizzy and she drags Ginny to the other party, only to be denied entry. It seems Ginny's mom had a bit of a reputation- she was the "Town Pump" as my grandmother would call her. No way would such trash be allowed to mingle with the Top Ten! Well, that tears it- Ginny and her mom get into the car, mom's driving drunk, the
drawbridge is going up...and into the drink goes the car. Ginny manages to escape, but mom doesn't.

Phew! To thank her doctor for helping her recover her memory, Ginny bludgeons him to death. What a freakin' nutter! Dad makes good on his promise to be home for Ginny's birthday and finds blood all over the house. He runs out to the cottage behind the house to find his dead wife's exhumed coffin...and his daughter Ginny throwing a corpse birthday party. Yup, all the rich kids who missed her party years ago are here now! They're dead, but they're there and that's what counts. Ginny thanks her father for coming and then kills him. She walks over to a party guest who's slumped over on the table and lifts the head to reveal...GINNY! Again, I say- what the?! In an attempt to have as many twists endings as possible (this movie is like porn for M. Night Shyamalan, I tell ya), Ginny the killer pulls off her face to reveal that she's really Ann, Ginny's friend and fellow Top Tenner. Where the fuck are Velma and Daphne at this point? Anyway, yes, it turns out that Ginny's slutty mom had slept with Ann's slutty dad, and hence Ginny was brought unto the world, which ruined Ann's family. Ann's been so pissed about it all this time that she murdered all these people to pin the blame on Ginny and ruin her life. Nyah! Well, they struggle, and Ginny stabs Ann dead. As her bad luck would have it, though, a cop walk in as Ginny stands amongst the bodies, holding a knife...zing! No one wins!

Happy Birthday to Me is a fair-to-middling slasher. It certainly made an attempt at originality with all those twists and turns, and it's got some very creative death scenes. I remember the death-by-shish-ka-bob from the pages of Fangoria way back when. It's certainly not scary, however, and there's something about it that's lackluster for all its originality. Overall, I'd give it 5 out of 10 matching stripey scarves.

3 comments:

Marty McKee said...

I really like this movie a lot, but you should be warned that, if you watched Columbia's DVD, you got a different version with a newly replaced music score that pales greatly next to the professional orchestral sound of the original release. Glenn Ford must be the biggest movie star to ever appear in a gory slasher movie, but he gives it a real lift in credibility, while the professional direction and slick camerawork make this Canadian production look almost respectable.

What I really love, however, are the gimmicky murders and the outrageously insane twist ending, which I swear had to have inspired Kevin Williamson to write SCREAM. You can have a lot of fun showing this movie to a bunch of friends, encouraging them to guess the killer's identity, and then watching their faces when Tracey Bregman rips her Rollin Hand mask off.

Recently, the credited screenwriters claimed they had nothing to do with the ending, which was apparently conceptualized during filming by the director and producer. The writers take great pains to distance themselves from the scene, but I think it's the best part of the movie.

David Lee said...

Okay Tracy, you owe us nothing and I'm sure you're busy as hell, but, I'd love to read some more of your thoughts. How 'bout posting again?

Amanda said...

I really like this movie. It's confounding as hell, but it's got that early 80s rich teen glamour that makes me so happy inside. I do agree about Ginny's hair. Who let Melissa Sue Anderson out of the house like that?

I also wonder if they were called the Top Ten before Ginny, who was the tenth? Dun Dun Dun!

Amanda By Night