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June 9, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #23 - Happy Birthday to Me

I've always been a big fan of finding meaning in random occurrences. When a movie comes on to my radar, I try to find a reason why it should stay there. This can get really confusing these days, as I study anything and everything cinematic, but when I was younger I viewed movies in a much smaller scope.

Which brings me to the wall outside of each of my childhood bedrooms. On that wall, wherever we were living, hung one of those "When You Were Born" things that parents like to grab up. It covered politics, news, sports, TV....and yes, movies, that were supposedly important at the time of my birth. The movies section consisted of this quote - "Popular movies were the horror films Friday the 13th and Happy Birthday to Me."

By the time I was old enough and tall enough to read this sign, my horror film obsession had started. But when I was old enough to ponder that comment, I began to wonder. Was it fate that horror movies ruled when I was born? Do they mean Friday the 13th Part II, since Friday the 13th came out a year earlier? What are the odds that one of the top movies on the day of my birth would be titled Happy Birthday to Me? And why have I never heard of this movie anyway?

Yes, I was an inquisitive child.
It wasn't until my late teen years when I, during my first trip to the video store in my college town that would shape 80% of my DVD collection, would notice an odd VHS box sitting on an island of Clearance Rental flicks. The box caught my eye by being older than anything else in the store, the kind of VHS box that was cardboard yet flapped open and had the cast listed inside. The film was, of course, Happy Birthday to Me, that grey ghost I'd always wondered about. I remember feeling a rush of emotions and looking around nervously, like that scene where Morgan Freeman finds the box under the rocks by the tree in The Shawshank Redemption. If there's ever been a moment when I felt like I'd opened a treasure chest, this was it.

I'd obviously never seen the film, but that wasn't stopping me from throwing down $3 and rushing home to view this mythical feature. And as I got into the movie, I found myself shocked at how much the film felt like it was made just for me.

Balancing the look and feel of an Italian giallo with the plot of an episode of A Pup Named Scooby Doo, Happy Birthday to Me makes up for its shortcomings (like bad acting, bad pacing, being too long, having a ridiculous backstory, and making me feel bad for Glenn Ford - a cinematic giant I love who was clearly slumming it here) via originality. The film's tagline boasts "Six of the most bizarre murders you'll ever see!"; and it's on the money. While these "bizarre" kills border on silly sometimes, it's at least a lot of fun to watch.
Speaking of slumming it, Director J. Lee Thompson had been kind of a big deal earlier in his career with The Guns of the Navarone and the original Cape Fear (which I freakin' love, and I will fight anyone who says Scorsese's remake is better); and he does bring a bit to the proceedings at times. There's a fantastic scene in the middle of the film where our perceptions are thrown for a loop that is handled perfectly, and it gives the final act a unpredictable edge on a lot of slashers from the '80s.

I've still got fond, fond memories of that first viewing of Happy Birthday to Me, which kept me on the edge of my seat and reminded me that any movie can overcome its faults by simply keeping you guessing. This isn't The Usual Suspects or the like - you know, the type of movie that keeps you guessing AND makes sense and seems plausible - but it's a lot of fun. (I also remember feeling that Scream borrowed a lot of plot points from this one, and revisiting the flick today kept that belief going in my head.)
Happy Birthday to Me has definitely lost the edge it had on me during repeat viewings. Once the tension's gone, the flaws jump off the screen and remind me why this isn't a horror classic that would have been on my radar back in those days of HBO and small town video stores. But I definitely get the feeling that Happy Birthday to Me and I were fated to have that one great viewing, and I think anyone else who's got an open mind for ridiculous twists could have the same experience with it.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!

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