31 Days to Scare ~ Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At the snobby Crawford Academy, popular high school senior Virginia Wainwright survives a freak accident, but suffers from memory loss and traumatic blackouts. As she attempts to resume a normal life, something terrible is happening – her friends are ruthlessly murdered one-by-one.

Stars: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lisa Langlois, Tracy Bregman, Lenore Zahn, Lesleh Donaldson

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: By the time Happy Birthday to Me rolled into theaters in May of 1981, movie houses were becoming saturated with holiday themed slasher pics after the booming success of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980.  No government holiday stone was left unturned and no religious day of remembrance was safe from having a killer (or killers) hunting down people that just want to have a good Easter egg roll or plant in tree in honor of Arbor Day.  See Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and Terror Train if you need a refresher.

What sets Happy Birthday to Me apart from the others is that it actually feels like it’s trying for the majority of its running length, aiming to provide audiences with some unique kills and a fair number of red herrings to keep you guessing until the totally ludicrous finale.  Underneath the gore and out of left field plot twists lies a fairly interesting film that isn’t totally lost along the way to its genre’s normal trappings.

A puzzling late career entry for director J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear, The Guns of the Navarone) and one of actor Glenn Ford’s last roles, this nicely budgeted Canadian produced flick has Mary Ingalls herself (Melissa Sue Anderson) as a popular girl who just can’t keep her friends alive.  Still feeling the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury due to a car crash that claimed the life of her mother, she starts to suffer blackouts and when she wakes up finds that another coed has been murdered.  With her birthday approaching the guest list gets liberally trimmed by a killer that likes to off their victims in a most cinematic fashion (I mean, just look at the poster!).

It’s clear that along the way the original script was jiggered with and lost some of its intended focus.  Though it feels like it’s headed one way for its big reveal, the ending provided is one no one would ever be able to predict in a million years.  I’m guessing there was a last minute reshoot to make the conclusion less obvious but in doing so it renders a heap of earlier clues and plot points useless.  It’s a cheat and a big cheat at that, but it’s just looney tunes enough to make it memorable.

Anderson never was that strong of an actress and it shows here as well.  Whether crying, screaming, or saying her lines in a flat monotone, a Scream Queen she was not destined to be.  Ford collects his paycheck without much shame while a bunch of Canadian teens never make that much of an impression, save for Matt Craven (Indian Summer) and Tracy Bregman as Anderson’s doomed chums.

It’s a film that goes from spooky to silly to scary to stupid but it’s not a bad party to think about attending – trust me, you’ve been to way worse real birthdays.  And don’t forget the creepy theme song that plays over the end credits…

Mid-Day Mini ~ Indian Summer

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven friends reunite for a week-long reunion at a summer camp in Ontario they used to attend as children which is now threatened with being closed down.

Stars: Alan Arkin, Matt Craven, Diane Lane, Julie Warner, Vincent Spano, Sam Raimi, Elizabeth Perkins, Kimberly Williams, Kevin Pollak, Bill Paxton

Director: Mike Binder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  This is truly one of my favorite movies and my appreciation of it has only grown as I’ve become an adult.  Released in 1993, Indian Summer was called out as ‘The Big Chill goes to summer camp’ — a not entirely unfair comparison when you consider it involves a group of friends gathering together after years apart to reminisce about their youth, rekindle old flames, and come to terms where their life journey has taken them.

Why this film has become as valuable to me as an adult is the way it handles the sensitivity and humor that’s found in the transition people go through as they age.  Some people can never really outgrow their teen angst or feelings of inadequacy…just as some see maturing as a way to start over again.   Director/screenwriter Binder (Crossing the Bridge, The Upside of Anger) manages to shuffle a wonderful cast around in situations that may seem like retreads of any number of films…without ever making them feel old-hat.

That’s partly thanks to the breezy script but most certainly attributed to a fine cast of actors who interact with each other and their surroundings over the course of their week-long stay at the summer camp of their youth.  The standout to me is still Perkins (The Doctor, Avalon) as a wise-cracking but wise single that has something to say in every situation but closely guards her own emotions.  She’s followed by Lane’s grieving widow that maybe hasn’t truly accepted the loss she experienced.  Warner and Spano are appealing actors that I miss seeing in film — their troubled marriage  has impacts on several other characters.

Craven, Pollack, and Williams too have nice turns with their well-drawn characters and a scene stealing Raimi (director of Oz The Great and Powerful and the original The Evil Dead) is a riot as a simpleton handyman around camp.  Academy Award winner Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine, Argo, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) balances his deadpan aloofness with a warmth that reminds us all of someone we look up to and want to emulate.

Filmed on location at Binder’s Canadian summer camp, the movie absolutely glows with a vibrancy that few films can really capture well.  Returning to this film at least once a year I find myself drawn to its wacky humor, late-night hi-jinks, and serious heart – it has an authenticity that keeps me smiling and continues to be a film I whip out when someone needs a recommendation for quality entertainment.