Any good slasher movie worth its salt gives us a villain that has some traumatic event that sets off their murderous frenzy – their “trigger,” if you will. Sometimes it’s horrifically tragic, sometimes it’s tragically hilarious. Sometimes, there’s no motivation at all. And sometimes, there’s too much motivation. With Triggered! we’re singling out one insane individual from some of the best and worst slasher films to see if we can make sense of the method behind their madness. For this installment, we’re focusing on the maniac behind the slayings in Happy Birthday to Me, Ann Thomerson.
In May 1981, Columbia Pictures distributed Happy Birthday to Me, arguably one of the most prestigious slasher films of the 1980s. Hoping to achieve the same box office prominence that Paramount earned with Friday the 13th the preceding year, they netted a handsome gross of $10 million from theaters. But tragically, the reviews weren’t all too positive, especially with The New York Times calling the film a “comparatively expensive ripoff of such teen-age love-and-meat-cleaver films as Friday the 13th and Prom Night.” In Happy Birthday to Me‘s cast are a few notable faces: the legendary Québecois actor Glenn Ford, who a couple of years prior had a key role in Richard Donner’s Superman as the titular superhero’s father. There’s Melissa Sue Anderson working to shake loose her goody-two-shoes image from her stay on the pioneer drama Little House on the Prairie, Matt Craven who would go on to appear in two solid films in 1990 (Jacob’s Ladder, Blue Steel) in addition to many other significant titles, and Lesleh Donaldson, who held key genre roles in features like Funeral Home, Deadly Eyes, and Curtains. The plot for Happy Birthday to Me centers on Virginia “Ginny” Wainwright (Anderson), the new member of the “Top Ten,” a social group comprised of the most popular kids at the distinguished academic institution, Crawford Academy.
The film kickstarts when one of the members, Bernadette (Donaldson), goes missing after her throat is slashed by a maniac she seems to recognize. As the story progresses, and the days wind down to Ginny celebrating her 18th birthday, the members of the “Top Ten” are knocked off one by one in varied ways. Over the course of the film’s lengthy run-time (nearly two hours in fact), Ginny begins to suspect she may be responsible for the oddball homicides: she’s been experiencing blackouts due to experimental brain surgery undergone to help her regain her memories after a traumatic car accident. In that accident, her mother drunkenly drove her vehicle off of a drawbridge, with only Ginny surviving. The film attempts to trick the audience throughout by showing Ginny committing a couple of the murders, so it’s quite the twist when it’s revealed that her friend, Ann Thomerson (Tracy Bregman) is actually the one who has been picking off the “Top Ten,” disguised as Ginny in a foolproof latex face mask and even going so far as to mimic how she walks and talks. Through its paperback-esque plot, we learn that years prior to the start of the film, Ginny’s lower-class mother had had an affair with Ann’s upper-class father. But now having married into wealth, Ginny’s mother invites the “Top Ten” to one of her daughter’s birthday parties. Coincidentally, Ann is also having a party that night, so the kids ignore Ginny’s invitation and go to Ann’s party instead. Her mother has an emotional breakdown at her daughter’s exclusion, leading to the previously mentioned drunken car crash. Ann, now in college, has somehow found out about the affair that led to the eventual dissolution of her family and has gone off the deep end because of it, not to mention the shocking revelation that Ann and Ginny are half-sisters. The film ends on a down note, implying that Ginny will take the fall for the murders that Ann committed, especially considering that the authorities barge in on the gruesome “birthday party” with all the deceased “Top Ten” members right as Ginny stabs Ann and kills her. It’s the ultimate poisonous kiss-off. One life is ruined in lieu of another. Cue the somber, haunting song over the end credits.
It’s quite easy to see just what triggered Ann’s violent rage. Here’s Ginny: a product of her father’s infidelity and a stark reminder of just what happened to cause her parents’ split-up invited into her circle of friends – her territory – and treated like the new best thing. To Ann, this is a total betrayal from her pals. Don’t they know what Ginny’s mother did to her family? To make matters worse, all Ann sees are thirsty lads like Steven, Alfred, and Etienne fawning over Ginny. Don’t they know what Ginny’s mother did to her family?! Now they have to die. Her revenge towards Ginny makes sense if we squint at it in a slasher movie “eye for an eye” way.
But it wasn’t intended to always be this way. The ending of Happy Birthday to Me and the revelation of Ann as a killer is really the only place the film whiffs its propulsive story, though that can be chalked up to the dreaded “writing the film while the film is currently shooting” plague that handicaps many troubled productions. Originally, the script was to end with the revelation that it was in fact, Ginny committing the murders all along, but possessed by the spirit of her dead mother. Frankly, though it takes the film grounded in a realm of reality to the world of the supernatural, this tracks with what we see throughout its early parts. All the victims who end up dead by the killer’s hand are the ones who chose not to come to her daughter’s party. For Ginny’s mom, this was not supposed to happen. She’s married a rich man: she should now be welcomed into high society. And yet, these snobs will not let her escape from the shadow of her alleged tawdry past, so they have to pay. It would be a thematically richer motive: discussing class struggles and how no matter how much success you finally reach, people never let you forget where you came from. Alas, what we get is a decent but flawed ending with Ann’s killer motive.
A child having a mental breakdown and resorting to violence because of a broken home isn’t all too far-fetched. Not much is seen of Ann’s home life in Happy Birthday to Me, but we can assume it isn’t all sunshine and lollipops. Infidelity occurred, and chances are either one of her parents isn’t in the picture anymore. According to The Real Root Causes of Violent Crime: The Breakdown of Marriage, Family, and Community, “Teenage criminal behavior has its roots in habitual deprivation of parental love and affection going back to early infancy. Future delinquents invariably have a chaotic, disintegrating family life. This frequently leads to aggression and hostility toward others outside the family. Most delinquents are not withdrawn or depressed. Quite the opposite: they are actively involved in their neighborhood, but often in a violent fashion.” Though her family has deteriorated, Ann is hardly a glum gal: she’s carrying on at the pub and hollering at sporting events, but it’s all a façade masking her burgeoning psychosis. The timing of the family becoming fractured also could be sending Ann’s emotions spiraling out of control. From the same article: “… a large proportion of very young children experience the emotional pain of the early and final stages of marital dissolution at a time when they are most vulnerable to disruptions in their emotional attachment to their parents.” Kids in their formative years have hair-trigger emotions, and when tied into losing a parent, the next step could end up being bolder and bloodier.
Happy Birthday to Me‘s murders in particular are something that Columbia chose to highlight in their aggressive marketing campaign, notably notorious for both what it promises and what it fails to deliver. That promise was “Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see,” with the poster image of an unfortunate gentleman named John getting skewered in his mouth by a shish kebab; slightly incorrect as the character who gets skewered is Steven. And Steven, the poster alleges, will never ride a motorcycle again; except, that’s actually the French exchange student Etienne, whose scarf is thrown into the chain of the bike, gorily dispatching him. The only truly accurate “bizarre murder” from the poster is weightlifter Greg, who’s killed via benchpress. Though a far leap from “bizarre,” we cannot argue the uniqueness of the murders, as most slasher films prior to and afterward mostly use sharp implements like knives, axes, and machetes to finish off their cast.
Happy Birthday to Me is one of the films that fell victim to the sweeping UK Video Nasty menace that plagued the 1980s. The man responsible for the film’s special effects is Tom Burman, who worked heavily throughout the 1970s on films like The Manitou, The Food of the Gods, and Phantom of the Paradise. As little blood that made it into the film, the set was coated in the crimson stuff, courtesy of its director. According to the film’s producer John Dunning in an interview with The Terror Trap: “The cameraman came to me and said, ‘John, you’ve got to slow J. Lee down. He’s throwing too much blood around and the camera lenses are always covered in it!’” Cutting all this blood down works for the best, because not only does it set Happy Birthday to Me apart from the other splatter-slashers of its era, it allows for a moodier, more psychological, even scientific take on the body-count film.
Aside from gore effects, the film effectively uses Ginny’s blackouts as a type of red herring so audiences think she’s the one picking off the “Top Ten.” We see these experimental surgeries that Ginny has been put through as an attempt to regenerate brain cells she lost when she was injured in the car accident. This surprisingly does have some basis in reality. Back in 1985, an orthopedic surgeon named Robert O. Becker at SUNY Upstate wrote a book called The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life that hypothesizes that “regeneration could be improved by applying electricity at the wound when there was a negative potential outside the amputation stub.” Though inspired by a case that happened prior to the story being constructed for the film, we can see this idea being played out in an early scene set in a classroom in Crawford Academy that shows Ginny thrust into a brain surgery flashback when she sees the teacher buzz a frog’s leg with electricity. The flashback is an effective shorthand to indicate that this tampering of her grey matter may have sent her into a murderous frenzy, but even more so because it truly shows us that the real catalyst of any slasher movie villain’s mania always starts with the brain.
There’s a lot of Canadian history buried in the creative DNA of Happy Birthday to Me. It was produced by the legendary Canadian arthouse duo of John Dunning and Andre Link, who, with their filmmaking shingle Cinepix, started out in 1969 with the infamous “maple syrup porn” film Valerie, then churned out notable features like David Cronenberg’s Shivers, Ivan Reitman’s Meatballs, and 1981’s other major hack-and-slash murder mystery, My Bloody Valentine. Both that title and Happy Birthday to Me are part of the glut of gimmicky slashers that all centered on holidays or days of importance, like Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, Paul Lynch’s Prom Night, and Herb Freed’s Graduation Day, but they hardly seem like ripoffs of each other. A lot of Happy Birthday to Me‘s renown can be attributed to its director, J. Lee Thompson, who years earlier directed the immortal thriller, Cape Fear (1962). His direction and Miklos Lente’s cinematography lend the film a visual gloss not as present in some of the grubbier titles of the hack-and-slash era. The film’s score by Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin gives the picture a sense of tender melodrama, a far cry from the screeching synths of the body-count films that would crop up in its wake. Happy Birthday to Me, despite its slightly compromised ending, shows that even in an era when filmmakers all over the world were cashing in on a craze, the Canadians were the ones who cared about constructing a better than average slasher movie.