Happy Birthday to Me


Slasher films were all the rage in the early 1980s, probably because of the pent-up hostility left by Jimmy Carter and disco music. Some of the entries in the genre were scary and entertaining, like a carnival funhouse, but many were derivative and stupid, like a carnival employee. Among these is “Happy Birthday to Me,” a wheezing, tiresome load from 1981 that sought to capitalize on the white-hot popularity of TV’s “Little House on the Prairie” by casting one of its lead actresses as its heroine.

That would be Melissa Sue Anderson, who played the oldest Ingalls daughter, Mary, the one who went blind and had to go to a special school. In “Happy Birthday to Me,” Anderson’s first and pretty much only theatrical film, she plays a girl who also goes to a special school, only instead of being for blind kids it’s for rich kids. It’s the Crawford Academy, one of those snooty Rushmore-type places in New England or something, and Anderson’s character, Virginia Wainwright, is fortunate to be one of its most popular students. I hope all of her friends don’t start getting killed!

Sorry, that was a spoiler. All of her friends do start getting killed. The first one is Bernadette, filling the role of Sacrificial Victim Who Gets Murdered in the Movie’s Opening Scene. The movie goes out of its way to establish that Bernadette knows her killer, while also going out of its way to prevent us from seeing the killer’s face. That means the killer is one of the students, which narrows it down considerably, since there are only about 10 students at the Crawford Academy. And the suspect list will get even smaller as more potential suspects become victims! This movie will be over in 85 minutes, tops!

Sorry, that was a spoiler. This movie is 110 minutes long. But it doesn’t feel like 110 minutes! It feels like 110,000 minutes.

Virginia’s deal is that her mom died in an accident a while back, and Virginia was injured but can’t remember anything that happened. Sometimes she stops by her mom’s grave to chat, though her father (Lawrence Dane) discourages this because remembering loved ones is shameful, or something. She’s on a first-name basis with her psychiatrist, David (Glenn Ford), who’s helping her retrieve her painful memories so that she can forget them again, or something. “Or something” is one of the movie’s recurring motifs.

Among Virginia’s friends is a pervy French guy named Etienne (Michel Rene Labelle) who sneaks into her bedroom late one night and steals a pair of her panties. He shows them to her the next day, evidently thinking that this will make her interested in him sexually, but she slaps him in the face, which I guess does not conclusively disprove his theory. Witnessing this exchange is Alfred (Jack Blum), the school nerd and weirdo, who harbors a secret crush on Virginia and dabbles in taxidermy and general creepiness. Etienne gets killed in the next scene, and the movie tries very hard to make us suspect that Alfred is the culprit, which obviously means that he is not. This is not our first rodeo, movie!

Next to go is Greg (Richard Rebiere), a weightlifter who didn’t do anything wrong to Virginia but gets killed anyway, perhaps just for being a weightlifter. (They have been oppressed for centuries.) Once again, the movie conspicuously avoids showing us the killer’s face while making it clear that the victim knows the person. “Oh, it’s you!” the victims say. “You are an acquaintance of mine! I have no reason to fear you!”

Now that three students have gone missing, people at the Crawford Academy start to get mildly concerned. Virginia occasionally remembers more details about the accident, and about the surgery she had afterward, which for some reason involved sawing open her skull and fiddling with her brain. David the psychiatrist confesses that Virginia was indeed the subject of an experiment to see if damaged brain tissue could be regenerated. He is unable to confess what that has to do with anything, though, because that is a trick question.

After 75 minutes of dragging its feet and employing standard slasher-movie scares and having Virginia’s generic friends generically talk to each other, the film finally gives us something to chew on: Alfred the nerd approaches Virginia while she’s visiting her mother’s grave, and Virginia stabs him to death. Virginia is the killer! It makes sense, too, because she had that psychological trauma and lived for years in that little house on that damn prairie. Case closed! We can go home now!

Oh, but not so fast, person who’s bored and wants this movie to be over! We still have a half-hour to go. Having answered the one question that could possibly have aroused any feelings of suspense or intrigue, the film brazenly continues anyway. Virginia murders another one of her friends by stabbing him in the mouth with a shish kebab skewer. I don’t think the injury is severe enough to be deadly, but I admit it does look cool, and maybe the guy was allergic to skewers. Then she thinks she has killed her best friend, Ann (Tracy Bregman), but when David the psychiatrist arrives there is no corpse, and he concludes that it’s all in Virginia’s head, and so she kills him, too, because why not?

And now it is Virginia’s birthday. Remember the title of the movie? It matters now. Turns out she threw a party for herself on a previous birthday, only to have no one show up because they all went to a party Ann was having instead. It was while driving drunkenly and angrily in the rain after this fiasco that Virginia’s mother was killed; now, it seems, Virginia has been murdering everyone who snubbed her.

Or has she??? (She has not.) See, it actually turns out that every time we saw Virginia kill someone, it was actually her best friend Ann disguised as Virginia. Ann would chloroform Virginia, take her place, and commit the murders. Why? Because Ann secretly hates Virginia because Virginia’s mother broke up her parents’ marriage. She’s bumping off Virginia’s friends — who, I hasten to add, are her friends too — to get revenge, and she’s doing it disguised as Virginia so that the people she kills … will … think it’s Virginia killing them? I guess? It seems like if you’re going to go to the trouble of manufacturing an elaborate Melissa Sue Anderson disguise (complete with Mission: Impossible-style realistic face mask), you’d want to commit at least one murder in front of witnesses. You’re not really “framing” someone if you kill all the people who might think that person did it.

Anyway, that’s the completely nonsensical twist at the end of this paralyzingly dull slasher movie. I have spoiled it for you out of contempt and boredom, because I’m a jerk. Happy birthday to me!

— Film.com