Thursday 21 July 2011

Happy Birthday to Me [1981]

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is a Canadian slasher movie that was dicted by J. Lee Thompson and originally released in May 1981.  It stars Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane and Sharon Acker.  A teenage girl and her classmates are terrorised by a vicious killer stalking the campus.

This is a good example of what happens to an essentially low-budget, independent genre when industry veterans, stars and major money are thrown at it.  Thompson was then at the fag end of his career, Anderson was trying to shed her wholesome TV image from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and Glenn Ford was probably just grateful for the work.  It's really a case of the right names for the wrong project.  No-one really cares about big name stars in a slasher movie: what people want to see is a succession of attractive people dying in gorily inventive ways.  Sticking a big star in such a film unbalances it because (a) you're almost certain they're going to survive to the end and (b) if they survive to the end then there's a good chance they're actually the baddie.

Straight out of a Dario Argento this one
 Anyway, this one's about elite college students being bumped off on possibly the least secure campus in the world.  Three or four students disappear on consecutive nights before the authorities seem interested, and even that isn't enough to stop one father leaving his daughter alone in the house on her birthday while he goes on a business trip.  It's not bad, and the final multiple twists are handled pretty well but while it's a thoroughly professional job (as you'd expect from Thompson) it's done with very little feel for the genre.

Melissa Sue Anderson as Virginia Wainwright
The attempt to launch Melissa Sue Anderson as a movie star didn't work and pretty soon she had returned to TV, this time with much less success.  She never got another role as prominent as that in her breakthrough show and eventually retired to devote her time to raising her family.

Glenn Ford as Dr David Faraday
Glenn Ford, who plays Anderson's psychiatrist, only made half a dozen features after this but lived into his 90s.  I always used to lump Ford in with Dana Andrews as a fundamentally dull actor until I read a quote from a director or a critic, I forget which, who said that such actors were perfect for film noirs because of that very ordinariness.  The point being that noirs rely on putting an everyday schmo into a situation where he is totally out of his depth.  Now that doesn't mean Ford, Andrews et al are due for a reappraisal from me, more that I now recognise that they offered qualities which were eminently suitable for certain projects.  To give him his due, Glenn Ford projected an image of integrity and dependability as he got older which allowed him to move into character parts.

Lawrence Dane as Virginia's father Hal
Lawrence Dane, who plays Anderson's father, is someone I wrote about once before in connection with SCANNERS [1981] and who must have it written into his contract that he gets first dibs on any feature film made in Canada.  The only other actor I feel I must mention is Matt Craven who has had a reasonably busy career in mainstream Hollywood films, his high point (if you'll pardon the pun) being a co-lead in Franc Roddam's mountaineering flick K2 [1991].  One final comment is that the make up effects are good and they are principally the work of one Jocelyne Bellemare.

Some of Jocelyne Bellemare's make up work

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