Happy Birthday to Me 1981
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lesleh Donaldson
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
You could be instantly forgiven for expecting the obvious. I mean by the time this was released we’d already had Graduation Day, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, Friday the 13th, et al; so what was left to terrorise in terms of notable calendar dates? Well hey; everyone has a birthday, right? Whereas the majority of titles that I’d mentioned were more or less clones of the buzzing slasher genre’s biggest hits, Happy Birthday to me stands apart. This is simply because it has enough wit and dare I say it, intelligence, to already display subtle self recognition.
Don’t get me wrong, this is no parody, but has enough in its rucksack to satisfy fans of thrillers, eighties retro and anyone who has popcorn and is looking for a damn good time.
Canada certainly held its own in terms of releases during the period’s golden age and if Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine and Terror Train don’t do enough to convince you, then Curtains or American Nightmare certainly should. It can be argued that in terms of credible output, the Canadians were slightly ahead of their neighbours when analysing the average quality of overall releases. We also can’t forget that John Dunning and Peter Simpson played huge parts in the cycle’s early successes. I spoke to the gorgeous and extremely talented Lesleh Donaldson who featured in this, Curtains and Funeral Home. She told me that she loved working on all of those pictures, but Birthday is probably her favourite.
The top ten students of Crawford Academy begin mysteriously disappearing. We see that they are being murdered by a black-gloved nut job. The question is, in such a close clique, who could have a motive to kill?
Many dorm slashers mixed gruesome high-jinks with frat humour during the length of the period, but not many managed to merge the two opposing styles with the finesse of Happy Birthday to me. The strength of the performances here helps the plot to flow smoothly, and each character stands out without ever coming across as forced or overbearing.
John Saxton’s story focuses not only on developing its players, but also on sustaining its mystery and unlike the majority of genre entries that were painfully easy to solve, Birthday’s slick script delivers an outstanding puzzle. There are a few obvious red-herrings that’s are meant to be that way, but if you tell me that you managed to figure out the killer’s identity before he’s been unmasked without assistance – then I’m sorry, but I find that hard to believe. There are a few slashers that have explosive revelations that you can notice big holes in when you think about them thereafter (Urban Legend?). Birthday on the other hand provides a tense knot of twists that make sense when unravelled.
From 1979 to 1983 there was a war raging. No, I’m not talking about the Cold War, Vietnam or outbreaks on the Gaza strip. This was the kind of stuff that the commandos in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket were talking about. It was the time of the battles to see who could come up with the most creative, gratuitous or bloody ways to kill someone on screen – otherwise known as ‘the gore wars‘! The teenage casualties were extremely high and an extensive campaign was broadcasted in box offices across the globe. Sororities, frat houses, summer camps and the like became the targets for numerous masked-killers and psychopaths. This regiment under the command of General J. Lee Thompson had a strategy to be the most creative teen-killer of the conflict. Have you even seen someone killed with a Shish Kebab skew for example?
The murders here were indeed ingenious and what they lacked in suspense they made up for with sheer audacity. It was said that in order to keep the tone running throughout, the director threw gallons of blood everywhere during the shoot and these behind-the-scenes motivations must’ve made the production a dream to work on. Lesleh told me that when the crew were filming the Birthday party scene, which puts all of the previously killed character’s corpses around a table, she took a walk around Montreal with Richard Riberie at lunch time, whilst they were still in their full make-up. Imagine the stares that they received –- it must’ve been a blast! The main version of the film that you’ll buy from the shelves is an edited print, but I have seen the uncut bootleg, which adds about a minute in total (maybe a tad more) to all the killings. I thought the motorcycle and weightlifting slaughters were very well done in their entirety and it’s a shame that they haven’t yet made it to DVD. We can only keep our fingers crossed in hope.
As I mentioned above, the quality of the dramatics is perhaps one of the strongest elements of the feature. It’s not that every actor gets a chance to show their full emotional range, but what they are asked to do, they do superbly and they’re all operating on the same wavelength, which helps no end with the chemistry that makes the characters come alive. Melissa Sue Anderson gets some MASSIVE scenes and she carries them off credibly, whilst only stumbling on the odd occasion. She was given a couple of tricky sequences and a lot of screen time to win over the audience. It could have been tempting, perhaps, to play the role a whole lot straighter. In the end, she chose the right mix of moods to maintain the necessary intrigue.
There’s an incredibly good score that caused controversy for Sony when they released a new updated copy of the film in 2004. Some of the music had been replaced with new pieces, including the eerie piano piece from the opening. It came as a real disappointment for slasher fans that wanted the original in better quality but as they remembered it. The best available version of the feature deserves to be seen in the best possible format because it is so beautifully put together that it acts as a reminder from a time when slasher movies could command solid casts and bigger budgets. So what complaints do I have? Well none so bad that they affect my rating. You can’t really compare Birthday with Halloween as it offers a completely different vibe. I mean, sure this is a slasher movie, but it’s the Brazilian carnival of slasher movies – all wacky visuals and extreme levels of fun with more twists than a tower staircase.
I loved this cheeseball and it’s definitely in the all time top-ten.
* Massive thanks to Lesleh Donaldson for her help – what a lovely, warm person she is!.
Final Girl √√√
Directed by: Richard Ciupka/Peter Simpson
Starring: John Vernon, Samantha Eggar, Linda Thornson, Lynne Griffin, Lesleh Donaldson
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
This is one of the few slasher flicks that I actually ‘grew up with.’ Now I say few, because now I own over 600 titles, but back before the internet and keeping in mind that not all video shopkeepers would supply 18-rated flicks to a ten-year-old boy, my options were somewhat limited. I had a small collection of VHS that I bought from my backstreet rental store (the only one locally that would sell to me) in Hackney and they were Curtains, Small Town Massacre, Whodunit?, Halloween, The Unseen, Massacre at Central High, Friday the 13th 6 and Stagefright. I watched these over and over back in those days and this has always been one of my favourites.
It was initially planned that Curtains would be the directorial debut of Richard Ciupka, a cinematographer that had worked on various cult-movies throughout the seventies and was the main camera operator on the excellent Giallo, Blood Relatives from 1982. In the end though, the movie was shot in two parts, with the second half having to be completed by producer Peter Simpson after an artistic disagreement saw Ciupka leave the shoot. This marked Simpson and his team’s second venture into the then-popular territory of the slasher genre. Their participation explained the healthy budget, excellent back-drop and also the contribution of Paul Zaza, a highly regarded composer from that era.
It’s no secret that Curtains suffered a nightmare production that was riddled with problems, which began when lead actress Celine Lamez was sacked halfway through the shoot. Reports have said that the producers were disappointed with her acting abilities and that she became awkward after two days on set. Linda Thornson was drafted in as her replacement, but footage had to be re-shot with the substitute actress and this stretched the budget and began a spiral of misfortune. It resulted in various script changes and eventually the mutual termination of Ciupka’s contract. Peter Simpson would later note that he had set out to make an adult slasher movie, whilst Ciupka had the intention to deliver more of an artistic approach. The two of them holding totally different cinematic ideas meant that the collaboration was jinxed from the start.
Many scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, which explains the numerous stills that hint at parts that never appeared in the final print. One of these shows the killer surrounded by the bodies of his victims and I’ve learned that it was an alternate ending that Simpson claims never really worked; however it makes for a disturbing image. At one point, the film was rumoured to be ‘unreleasable’, but it eventually went public in 1983, three-years after shooting had begun. It sank without trace upon release and failed to become the follow up to Prom Night that many had predicted. Much like the fate that befell The Shawshank Redemption, a second lease of life on VHS has made Curtains something of a cult-classic and it is now considered to be one of the better entries from the peak-period.
Six actresses head up to a secluded mansion in the Canadian Rockies to audition for the part of Audra, a highly regarded script from renowned director Jonathan Stryker. In the end only five arrive as it becomes apparent that a masked killer has targeted the production with a bizarre vengeance against the stars.
Curtains certainly has more than its fair share of noteworthy moments and is a highly authentic entry that shares no close resemblance to any of its genre brethren. It truly stands alone as an individual stalk and slash experience that demands respect for its ability to keep tension running at an impressive altitude throughout the feature. The awe-inspiring second killing ranks highly as one of the most creatively handled slaughters from the genre’s peak. The photography and structure of the scene is at times breathtaking and Simpson’s work is reminiscent of Argento’s.
The final chase sequence is equally as suspenseful and utilises a superb use of illumination and claustrophobic trappings to create a fitting finale. The dimly lighted prop-room location gives the director a chance to shine as he makes the most of some ingenious decor and creates a memorable collage of striking images. I especially liked the flashing lights revealing the killer hiding in the back of a beaten-up Mini and then when the camera momentarily returns, he has disappeared. Curtains manages to build a truly spooky atmosphere and it’s perhaps one of the creepier entries of the early eighties. The imagery of empty corridors help to build a feeling of isolation and the film succeeds in sustaining a mood that I cannot remember finding in even the best pieces that I’ve sat through. Using a doll as a ‘calling card’ for the arrival of the maniac showed a neat flair for the macabre and it’s a shame that it was only used twice. On top of that, we have the magnificent Paul Zaza’s score, which is the cherry on top of an unique, if slightly jumbled thriller.
Another bonus is the good work from the cast, which is filled with actors that have far more undiscovered talent than any kind of reputation or A-list credibility. John Vernon makes a competent – if a little theatrical – lead, never once pleading for audience-sympathy, whilst Eggar does a good job as the essential red herring (or is she?). It’s Lynne Griffin who really steals the show. The dynamic little Canadian actress delivers a fantastic portrayal, which sees her effortlessly switch between emotions of anxiety, fear, insecurity and anger. She even takes the time to include a stand up comedy routine…no really.
A film with such a turbulent production is bound to have its share of flaws and Curtains is a case in point. Even though we’re unable to tell exactly how much the shoot was affected by the unfortunate occurrences, the fact that it was finally released under a director pseudonym proves that it certainly wasn’t a smooth process. Some of the characters are laughably under developed and a couple even remain nameless. (A sequence that offered a back story for Christie didn’t make the final print). It’s impossible to pick your choice for the surviving girl, because not one of the actresses has enough screen time to display their individual persona, which has an indisputable effect on the mystery.
It is a surprise when the killer is revealed, but to be honest, it could have been absolutely anybody, because we’re not offered any solid leads or motives. What’s really needed is a total rehash of the picture from the raw footage or the ‘dailies’ – so to speak. Then we could get a true look at how the feature was planned in the director’s vision. The recent death of Peter Simpson and the fact that Curtains is a combination of two vastly opposing ideas has made this unlikely, but we can never give up hope.
Until then, what we’re left with is a movie that could and should have been, but never was. It has its moments, a few of them outstanding, but just falls a few hurdles short of being recognised as a true classic. Definitely amongst the top-ten of the eighties’ best slashers, but it’s painful to think that it should have been in the top three…
Killer Guise: √√√√√
Final Girl √√