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Happy Birthday to Me
1981 - R - 110 Mins.
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Producer: John Dunning & Andre Link
Written By: John C.W. Saxton, Peter Jobin & Timothy Bond
Starring: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker
Review by: Jake Cremins
   

Things I Learned From The Movies: If you celebrated any holiday in Canada in 1981, it ended up looking like this
I've just seen 'Happy Birthday to Me' and I'm flabbergasted. What insanity infected this movie? When did they decide to actually write a complex script, and when did they realize that they couldn't stop? I started out thinking this was going to be yet another 'Halloween' or 'Friday the 13th' ripoff; after it was over I emerged in a daze, trying to figure out if this was the most ambitious slasher movie ever made or just the most confusing. The plot is so overcrowded that we think no explanation could possibly do it justice, but we're wrong: the ending here explains, and explains, and explains, until...well, you've got to see it to believe it. Three writers worked on this screenplay, but that's about seven less than I was expecting.

The story deals with Ginny (Anderson), a new student at the posh Crawford Academy. She's moved back after a five-year absence, having first moved away for a reason that is but one of the movie's carefully shrouded secrets. Ginny quickly becomes a member of the Top Ten, a clique of wealthy kids at school. Then, as Ginny's birthday approaches, someone begins killing off the Top Ten one by one; suspects range from the sour-faced headmistress to various students to Ginny herself, who's beginning to wonder what happens during those blackouts she keeps having.

After this setup the movie settles into its rhythm, which is to keep the identity of the killer a secret in the most insanely complicated ways possible. I'm going to assume that they picked out the killer and the motive first and constructed the plot backwards from it; there’s simply no other explanation for the way the story unfolds. There are several key events and facts which cannot be properly shown to us without blowing the big surprise...and yet, being key events and facts, they have to be shown to us in some form or another. And so scenes are constantly ending just before they make sense, and characters keep trailing off during explanations, before it's clear what they're talking about. We are also distracted with six if not three thousand red herrings, all of which must be explained away before the movie is over; this leads to a final half hour in which one suspect after another is eliminated in throwaway lines so quick that if you leave to use the restroom you're pretty much doomed.

I think the scene in the bell tower is my favorite. Two characters (I won't say who) go up to the school chapel and mess around in the tower, and then...something...happens. The scene is filmed in such a way that we assume that one thing has happened, and then the next scene suggests that it must have been the opposite. A scene after that it is explained what really happened in the bell tower, and then it's explained again as something else altogether. Later we learn that what happened in the bell tower has nothing to do with the story anyway. It's that kind of movie.

And yet, 'Birthday' is so jagged and strange and confusing, and goes through such convoluted channels in order to prevent giving away anything, that it almost becomes a style. It's certainly not boring--there's no time to be bored, because after the first half hour you're constantly asking yourself "But how did he...?" and "But when was she...?" and "But how could...?" The weird thing is that the movie isn't confusing because it forgets to explain things; it's confusing us on purpose and doing it well, over and over again. So much...well, skill, I guess...is used in turning the plot on its head every ten minutes that you may find yourself sticking around out of sheer curiosity, trying to imagine how they could possibly wrap this all up.

Well, they wrap it up all right. The climax in which all is explained is so overwrought, so loony and so hilariously impossible that it almost works as a payoff. By the time the credits roll we've been through five flashbacks, three conclusions and an explanation of the plot that defies, I'm pretty sure, six if not three thousand of Newton's Laws of Uniform Motion. There's even a quickly inserted shot of one character's dead body, simply because the movie has been so busy running around in circles that it forgot to kill her off. And still there are questions unanswered, such as why the man decided to run into the graveyard at just that moment, and when and how that mask could have been made, and how all of the water disappeared after that upstairs bathroom was flooded, and--you'll love this--why the murders were committed.
 
Movie Guru Rating
Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable.
  2.5 out of 5 stars

 
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