Fun Factoid: Far too many cast and crew members appeared at one time on CTV’s The Littlest Hobo. This is not a good thing.
A (Lengthy) Canuckle Preamble
Back in the late seventies and early eighties, a number of veteran directors were experiencing career slumps, and the Canadian tax shelter productions offered filmmakers such as Jules Dassin, John Huston, Peter Medak, Alvin Rakoff, and J. Lee Thompson opportunities to make films.
Quality wasn’t always of importance, since the films were primarily designed to shelter investor monies from the tax man (legally, of course). Dassin, renowned for classics such as Naked City (1948) and Never on Sunday (1960), directed the dreary Peter Pan complex drama Circle of Two (1980); and John Huston had gone from The Maltese Falcon and The Man Who Would Be King (1975) to Phobia (1980), a dull psycho thriller with a twist finale no one cared about.
Medak, who directed the pitch-black satire The Ruling Class (1972), in turn, struck gold with The Changeling (1980), whereas Rakoff, who arguably reached a creative high with the underrated Hoffman (1970), created a haunting blend of sleaze and suspense in Death Ship [M] (1980).
It seems that 1980 was indeed a peak year for mortgage movies (movies made to pay for the house and car mortgage, if not the kids’ tuition).
Thompson, however, was a more interesting case because his background began with provocative films, like the women’s prison drama The Weak and the Wicked (1954), and progressed to international blockbusters such as The Guns of Navarone (1961) – still one of the best war actioners ever made.
During the sixties he made major star vehicles in various genres, but his contributions within the thriller genre tend to get less attention. There was the troubled production of Eye of the Devil (1966), as well as the original Cape Fear (1962), and in both films, much like Navarone, he demonstrated a knack for getting good performances as well as crafting some inventively edited sequences.
Thompson’s comfort with montage, as well as a classy, formal style, made him a perfect match for producers John Dunning and Andre Link, whose canon included several exploitation films, as well as David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). In 1981, the pair produced two of the best-known/best-loved Canadian slasher films, My Bloody Valentine, and Happy Birthday to Me, and much like the Australians, who were enjoying their own Cinema Renaissance (aka Ozploitation), the people involved in the production didn’t necessarily come from a horror background.
That may be the film’s biggest asset, because there are less clichés than expected in a film made in the wake of Halloween (1978).
A Cast of Notables and Mere Mentions
A number of the actors were close to the age of their characters (okay, maybe three), ostensibly senior high school kids.
Newcomers to the slasher were Melissa Sue Anderson, apparently determined to shed her melodramatic identity with the popular family series Little House on the Prairie; Tracy Bregman, who would made one more exploitation film (1982’s women-in-prison drama The Concrete Jungle) before her hugely popular run on the TV soap The Young and the Restless; Lesleh Donandson, familiar from her work in William Fruet’s Funeral Home (1980), Robert Clouse’s Deadly Eyes (1982), and Curtains (1983); Lenore Zann, soon to appear in 1982’s Visiting Hours; and Lisa Langlois, fresh from, uhm, John Huston’s Phobia [M] (1980).
The male cast was overtly older than their characters, but among the familiar faces are prolific character actor Matt Craven (fresh from Duning and Link’s camp classic Meatballs); Lawrence Dane as the heroine’s absentee father; and, of course, Glenn Ford, who really had no business being in a slasher after his lovely small role in Superman (1978), but he turns a throwaway character of a supportive shrink into a really great guy. (One could argue, however, that because Ford played the shrink with such warmth, his character is never regarded as one of several suspects. He’s just too swell.)
Some viewers have sighted Quebec license plates in the film, but if major parts were indeed shot in the village of Phoenix, New York, as credited in the film, Birthday is a rare slasher featuring primarily Canadian talent and American locations.
Thompson’s approach seemed to focus on characters and suspense rather than straight gore. Throat-slitting and the cadaverous finale aside, there’s actually far less blood and physical nastiness in Birthday than expected. (Thompson, however, was quite comfortable in playing out some nasty torment, as in the repugnant 1979 WWII actioner, The Passage.)
As disposable as the characters may be, it’s obvious strong attention was given to the actors, which is why the opening kill is so unsettling; the doomed girl (seen on the cover of the 2004 Sony DVD) is still an idiot (when threatened with a straight razor, you scream LOUD and RUN LIKE HELL, understand?) but the actress makes the scene intense because Thompson concentrates on the nuances of fear under some chilling high contrast lighting. It also helps that Thompson knew where to put the camera, which is why there are no bad shots, clunky edits, or ineptly constructed montages.
Other Departments of Merit
The same care went into the score by Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin (the latter also responsible for the chilly song that plays over the end credits). Harwood’s background is primarily as a sound man, sound mixer, and occasional composer (mostly for John Cassavetes’ seventies films, including A Woman Under the Influence, and Opening Night), whereas Rubin had ample experience in TV, as well as the occasional feature film, including the 1980 shocker Motel Hell.
The Genie-nominated score is based around a lovely piano theme backed by a small string orchestra, and the cue placements manage to convey the right balance of sympathy, fear, and suspense when the film’s plotting starts to get a bit wonky. Anchor Bay’s DVD marks the first time the score is back with the film (and in rich Dolby 2.0 Surround to boot), since the prior 2004 DVD from Sony apparently contained a preview print with a mono mix of awful temp track material (although the original theme song was still present over the end credits). Why the film was released on video with the alternate track is a mystery, but the restored score should delight fans, and reaffirm the score’s solid reputation (as well as the composers).
Producers Dunning and Link also retained the services of their sort-of stock company, including editor Debra Karen (Death Weekend, Blackout, Meatballs), and John C.W. Saxton, a screenwriter whose eclectic background includes Across This Land with Stompin’ Tom Connors & Blackout (both Link-Dunning production), as well as the cult classics Class of 1984 (1982), and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975).
The Story (Er, What It Is)
Saxton’s story is initially straightforward – a killer is knocking off members of The Top Ten, a group of high school kids coming from old money families and industrialists – but wormed into the bodycount narrative is the murky identity of Virginia (Anderson), the pretty girl with some obvious mental trauma who’s returned to her home town, and is trying to fit with the in-crowd.
None of Virginia’s new friends regard her as awkward or plain, and she’s quite comfortable being nestled with the snotty clique – a situation that doesn’t offer any conflicts beyond stealing boyfriends or picking sides in petty arguments. She’s also got a decent relationship with her father (Dane), so the only ingredient that can cause our heroine to become unstable is a past history that includes the death of her mother under mysterious circumstances, and flashes from a disturbing brain operation triggered by visual or aural stressors.
Those moments bring her back to the friendly shrink (Ford), and he helps her identify the root of her shocking memories. Is she responsible for the deaths of several friends because of a rising schizophrenic behavioral pattern, or is there someone determined to drive her exclusively mad?
Most of the buildup includes shading several of the boys as potential nutters, but those ersatz danger moments are rather ridiculous, mostly because they’re played as cheats for the audience. The group’s nebbish member, Alfred (Jack Blum), seems to have a severed head in his workroom, but the reason he indulges in grisly projects is left unawnswered; and the womanizing Rudi (David Eisner, another Phobia alumnus) utters dialogue in a bell tower that infers he’s got a killer’s drive, except Virginia laughs it away the next day when his prank comes to light.
There are also some loose ends that don’t quite gel: Why does Rudi bury a scarf in the rose bed with a skull? Is it to put blame on a member of the group, since everyone in The Top Ten wears the same scarf?
And why does Virginia’s father stumble across a classmate, waiting in the rain, clutching a present for the grisly birthday party that closes the film? Is it due to her discovering a cadaver nearby, or did she see the grotesque celebration at play?
Probably the reasons Birthday became a favourite among slasher fans come from seeing Anderson going against her Little House on the Prairie type by playing an unstable girl who indulges in a bit of teasing as well as some shocking acts, and there’s the murders which are pretty crude: death by motorcycle wheel, death by grass shears, death by barbell, and getting shish kabobbed in the mouth, Uli Lommel-style (but better than anything idiot Lommel could’ve captured and edited on film).
Most fans probably regard the ending as the film’s top moment because it’s classic Grand Guignol: cadavers, the birthday girl suddenly confronted with a family secret, and a ludicrous reveal that includes the killer offering a recap of how the film’s true heroine was periodically put ‘out of order’ using some chloroform.
[END OF SPOILERS]
In one way, Birthday follows the pattern of a classic giallo: the childhood trauma of a person suddenly bubbles to the surface, seems to spawn a violent bodycount pattern, and the killer’s motivations stem from a primal jealousy or injustice kept alive by rage. The killer, as in a traditional giallo, also wears a heavy black coat and leather gloves, and the murders are drawn-out teases with a grotesque payoff.
As with a giallo, the music score is based around a sympathetic theme which gives the whole bloody film a veneer of class. The only oddity of Birthday is its unusually long running time; at 110 mins., it’s paced like a drama instead of a slasher film, with the standard beats timed for regular kills and shocks instead of plotting.
The After Party
On the one hand, fans will be happy the film’s transfer is sharp, and the stereo soundtrack features the original music score, but it’s unfortunate there aren’t any extras that place the film within its historical context, either within the slasher genre, or (perhaps more importantly), as an example of vintage Canuxploitation.
Some interviews with the producers and surviving cast would’ve shed light on Canadian filmmaking during the tax shelter years, as well as the methods with which director Thompson was able to extract more class than expected from cast and crew.
Even a featurette on the producers would’ve been interesting, since Dunning and Link seem to have kicked off their filmmaking partnership with Quebecois erotica, occasional Canadiana, and more exploitive horror films with enough shock elements to attract theatre and drive-in audiences.
Lionsgate’s My Bloody Valentine missed this golden opportunity when their interview and making-of featurette suddenly changed gears and focused on the horrible remake that lacks the warmth, class, and fun of the original, and it’s unfortunate Anchor Bay’s Birthday DVD (sporting the great campaign art) didn’t fill that void. However, the film’s back in print, and is a mandatory addition to one’s classic slasher collection, if not Canuxploitation.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan