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Reviews 31 Days of Horror IX

Happy Birthday to Me

Happy Birthday to Me

J. Lee Thompson

Canada, 1981

Credits

Review by Leah Chamberlain

Posted on 09 October 2012

Source Anchor Bay DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror IX

I am largely ambivalent toward horror movies. As a feminist with a background in philosophy, I thought that the horror genre was composed of a strict binary system where men are monsters, women are punished for their femaleness, sexual ambiguity cannot exist without violent repercussions, and race is barely even nodded at. But seven years ago a would-be boyfriend wooed me with Re-Animator—a bold choice, to say the least, considering the film’s most famous scene depicts cunnilingus as performed by a severed head. More films followed over the years and things like the slapstick element of Evil Dead II and the strong female cast of The Descent helped me to realize that my preconceived notions of horror movies needed some revision.

While Happy Birthday to Me is in many ways a typical slasher film it is interesting because it doesn’t possess the motifs that invariably trip me up: the killer is not a male who injudiciously desexualizes women, but rather a female with a deliberate plan. Each slaughter is given screen time equivalent to the others – it doesn’t take women longer to die than men – and while there is a whiff of teen sexuality played out in a pair of discarded panties as our protagonist changes into a chaste bathrobe, there are no gratuitous shots of nudity or scantily clad screaming women scrambling through brush away from a killer.

The film takes place at an elite prep school where, one by one, a group of popular students known as the Crawford Ten are killed by someone that they know and trust, but whose identity remains a secret until the end. Ginny Wainwright has just returned to high school after recovering from a freak accident that killed her self-absorbed, promiscuous mother. We learn, through a series of flashbacks, that Ginny’s rehabilitation process was arduous, and even after some graphic brain surgery she still hasn’t fully recovered her memory of that night. These flashbacks also describe Ginny as someone who wasn’t particularly well-liked prior to her accident—when no one showed up for her birthday party, Ginny’s mother drove off a drawbridge in a drunken rage.

Four years later, Ginny is back at Crawford with the right group of friends at the wrong time: her birthday. By the time the Crawford Ten have all been felled by garden shears, weights, motorcycles, fire pokers, shish kebab skewers, and cake knives, it’s pretty clear who the culprit must be… or is it?

Here’s why Happy Birthday to Me is unique in my personal world of horror movies: I didn’t want to pull out all of my gender theory books and throw them at the screen. This movie had dramatically hormonal, self-centered, rich teenagers who died because their brains hadn’t yet developed their full reasoning potential. The killer demonstrated an unreal hyper-rationality while explaining her single motivation to kill nine people. This single-minded focus is teenage behavior acted out to the extreme. If the killer did her killing when she were older, she would be just another stereotypical, fixated, “crazy bitch.”

I also loved that the killer improvised each killing; she used the resources at hand to construct unique scenarios with the same outcome—death. She didn’t have or need a phallic weapon like the drill in The Slumber Party Massacre or a chainsaw, made eponymous in Tobe Hooper’s Texas-based massacre. She made do with her natural environment and was able to cull the materials necessary in order to get the job done. If we examine this further this ingenuity is actually a celebrated stereotypical female quality.

And there’s the issue of the final girl. Usually in slasher films, the final girl is the virtuous female who abstains from everything fun, like sex and drinking, and is, in turn, allowed to live. Her prudence is not without consequence as she is still a target of the killer. In Happy Birthday to Me, the final girl is, in fact, virtuous and therefore survives but is also framed as the killer. This makes her the survivor, the victim, and the killer all rolled into one. Now that is a well rounded character!

Happy Birthday to Me was a pleasant surprise of a slasher movie. I wasn’t angry at overdone breast exposure, victimized women, or sexual violence—my usual horror movie hangups. The only incredulity that I had was expressed at the end with the rather preposterous unmasking of the true killer (which is a common problem for whodunits). Otherwise, I just enjoyed the simple pleasure of people getting skewered and crushed by barbells for what I hope is the first of many viewings.

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