21 May 2024

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
Contributed by Michael Rowe

Michael Rowe is a Canadian novelist and an award-winning independent journalist. His work has appeared in the National Post, The Globe and Mail, The United Church Observer and other publications. He has been a finalist for both the Canadian National Magazine Award and the Associated Church Press Award in the United States. The author of several books, including Writing Below the Belt, a critically acclaimed study of censorship, pornography, and popular culture, and the essay collections Looking For Brothers and Other Men's Sons, which won the 2008 Randy Shilts Award for Nonfiction, Rowe has also won the Lambda Literary Award. He has been a longtime contributing writer to The Advocate and is currently a political blogger for The Huffington Post. His first novel, Enter, Night, will be published in October 2011 by ChiZine Publications.

Cult, defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary:
a] great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
b] the object of such devotion
c] a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion
Happy Birthday to Me came out in 1981, when I was in my final year at boarding school and contemplating the beginning of my own life. I was eighteen, and barriers didn’t exist for me at that immortal age.

As a lifetime horror nerd, I had enjoyed the movies of the end of the 1970s -- Halloween, The Fury, John Badham's Dracula, Friday the 13th to name just a few -- all of them imbued with that indefinable aesthetic that marked them as 70s horror films.

That aesthetic (some admixture of innocence, optimism, and an open-hearted willingness to be frightened, to put oneself in the filmmaker’s hands and say, “OK, go!”) has never been repeated. It predates the era of talking on cell phones during movies, it predates “spoilers” on the Internet, and it predates the dedicated, cynical game of trying to figure out who the killer is before the picture is even over.

I saw Happy Birthday to Me in a movie theater in Winnipeg on a Sunday afternoon in May of 1981. I went alone, because I liked my horror movie experiences pure and untainted by the presence of anyone who couldn’t be as “present” as I myself was going to me.

What unfolded on the screen was the beginning of a deeply personal love affair for many reasons.

The first being, I loved the story. Like the Crawford Top Ten, I was also at a boarding school (though not nearly as luxurious a one, much less one that was co-ed) so slipping myself into the story was an even more effortless exercise than usual.

Too, the movie was filmed in Canada, and it actually featured people I didn’t know personally, but knew of. Lisa Langlois had just done a play nearby. Blond Adonis Richard Rebiere was with the same modeling agency in Montreal with which I was signed.

It might be difficult for American readers to understand the cultural impact, at that time, on a Canadian boy who’d spent most of his life automatically transposing, in his imagination, American towns and cities onto places he himself knew.

Sure, Crawford was set in New England, but anyone familiar with Quebec could spot where it was shot. No sweat. And don’t even get me started on the assertive Canadian accents that “ooted” the shooting location.

The notion that my great love, horror films, could actually be shot in Canada had never occurred to me (I’d realize later how many had, without my knowledge.) If horror films could be shot in Canada, with American stars like Melissa Sue Anderson, co-starring people whom I knew, even peripherally, then it meant that I -- standing at the threshold of adulthood, with dreams of movie stardom or literary stardom, or some kind of stardom -- might actually be able to attain them.

Not a bad bargain, all told, given the price of therapy, or plane tickets to Hollywood or Europe, considering that I got all of that for the 1981 price of a movie, a bag of popcorn and a Coke.

Yes...the lovely shadows, the beautiful autumn cinematography, the eye-candy, the scary, jumpy story, and those marvelous lines all played their part.

Those of us who’ve drunk deeply of the Happy Birthday to Me Kool-Aid all know the brilliant magic of Lesleh Donaldson’s line, “Come along, Winston, give Mommy head!

We know it isn’t the ridiculous line itself that makes that scene work: it’s her ugly little mean-girl laugh, and her undignified, blubbering death in the parking lot afterwards.

Every boy who watched it winced and crossed his legs when the barbell weight was dropped onto Rick Rebiere’s crotch before he went off to meet his ancestors.

And yes -- it’s preposterous for Tracey Bregman’s character, Ann, to whip off her “Melissa Sue Anderson” mask and reveal herself as the killer. But you know what? Fuck it. We loved it. We’re a family, and we’ll stick a shishkebab skewer up your ass if you dare to trash our movie.

Of course, I grew up. I became a writer. Well into middle age, I joined the outrage when Columbia released the dreadful DVD version in 2004, the one with the unrecognizable cover art and without that wonderful piano score. I felt vindicated when they listened to our wrath and did the right thing by re-releasing it properly in 2009.

I’m acutely aware of the fact that kids today who are the age I was then might find the film hopelessly corny. Again, though, I don’t care.

For those of us of a vintage who loved it when we first saw it, and love it still, it’s a time capsule of an era that is gone, and won’t be back. Whether we miss that era, or whether we miss ourselves in that era, is almost irrelevant, because it all comes back in a gorgeous autumnal gush of orange and blood red in the first strains of that haunting piano piece, and it’s great to be eighteen again with life rolling out in front of us like the darkened path to The Silent Woman where the rest of the Crawford Top Ten are waiting for us.

Well, most of them, at least.

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