Seeing Double is the new Scene-Stealers series that celebrates the only thing better than watching one movie—watching two movies.
Each week we look for a more perfect cinematic union as we view and discuss a pair of movies chosen either for things they have in common or things they don’t. The films may be old or new, obscure or well known, celebrated or reviled. The only rules are that we must justify the pairing up front, and all titles have to be readily viewable at home, as determined by their availability to rent or stream through the most popular home video websites.
I first fell in love with the concept of double features as a child, on nights when bed times were uninforced and friends and I would stay up as late as possible. While our parents slept, we ruled the remote control. While videogames and television shows were great during the daytime, we found those nights were practically made for exploring just what treasures those R ratings were actually restricting. But whether awesome or lame, no matter what we watched first, it only led us to search that much harder for something to either complement or amend the overall viewing experience.
In honor of those lost late nights, I decided to pick two lesser known 80′s horror films I had never gotten around to. I chose 1986‘s “April Fool’s Day” first, as it seemed appropriate for obvious reasons. For the second film, I chose 1981‘s “Happy Birthday to Me.” Going into it, I knew that both were filmed in Canada, feature infamous twist endings, and are a part of the somewhat reviled calendar-based subset of the slasher genre, a trend responsible for the most formulaic films in a particularly formula-dependent genre.
APRIL FOOL’S DAY (1986)
“April Fool’s Day” arrived at a time when the Calendar well was starting to run dry. “Silent Night, Deadly Night” had taken yet another stab at Christmas, and Jason was being resurrected for the sixth “Friday the 13th,” after being killed off, then supplanted by an ambulance driver. But there weren’t many untapped holidays or events left for upstart franchises to exploit. Unless you’re a Native American, what could possibly be scary about “Columbus Day?” Did “Point Break” begin its life as a script called “President’s Day” about murderous presidential mask wearing bank robbers? Well, it should have.
Given the slimness of the pickings, April Fool’s Day was definitely a reasonable choice. From the opening scene showing an interview of a woman pretending to be Irish, it’s clear that nothing in this movie should be taken at face value alone. To further hammer this point home, we are also treated to a flashback where a young girl at a birthday party is given a jack-in-the-box that was obviously purchased at a failed toy store H.R. Giger tried to open.
Back in the present, fairly attractive college students are waiting for a ferry to take them to the private island mansion of their heiress friend. Among them are three blonde women, two chowderheads played by Biff from “Back to the Future” and a guy who isn’t Biff from “Back to the Future,” an aspiring yuppie with a Tennessee drawl, a smart-ass who dresses like he’s still perfecting his Ferris Bueller Halloween costume, and a mullet-sporting young man who looks uncannily like Kevin Bacon and Kevin Dillon had a really buff lovechild.
Yes, there’s an attempt made at backstory for these characters, but should we care about it? No. The formula kicks in fast enough. A prank goes wrong, people mysteriously go missing, and then corpses start showing up in the water. Yet for some reason the remaining friends don’t seem to take the threat too seriously, as if they can’t shake the feeling that it might be one big joke, since this is exactly the type of joke normal college students play on each other, I guess. Besides, who has got time to be afraid of being murdered when there’s a Cold War going on and a Cola War going on and either one could be responsible for a huge bomb? Just look at New Coke and all the people that suffered by its hands.
Despite some faults, this is a pretty good film. Its greatest strengths are its brisk pacing and its wonderfully unhinged lead performance from “Valley Girl” Deborah Foreman. The movie also a has very loose “friends hanging out” feel to it that fits well. It can be pretty charming and amusing, though the actors aren’t quite as funny as they appear to think they are. There are also some ambitious dramatic moments that really work. A scene in which a character apologizes for unintentionally offending someone carries some emotional weight and feels authentic in a way mostly alien to this genre. Its single biggest weakness is that the two least interesting characters are the final two survivors, so it’s a bit of a struggle to care at that point.
As far as the not-so-shocking twist ending goes, it works. It really is the only logical conclusion and it’s clear that this was the story the filmmakers set out to tell. Apparently though, it angered people who were sold on the horror aspect this film fails to deliver with its lack of scares and bloodless, off-screen kills. But those poor sports are missing the bigger picture. This film’s cinematic triumph is that it promised one thing only to reveal it was something else all along. It’s not just the characters who were tricked, but the audience as well. And isn’t that the greatest April Fool’s Day gift of all?
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981)
Where “April Fool’s Day” willingly fails in the horror department, “Happy Birthday to Me” excels. From frame one, its clear that this a beautifully shot film featuring some great actors (including Pa Kent himself, Glenn Ford). But it’s also brutal and unrelenting when it wants to be. As most conventional horror movies do, this one opens with an attractive young woman being murdered, strangely enough after speaking to a woman with an Irish accent. But her murder isn’t tidy. In a painfully realistic scene, she fights frantically for her life as she’s strangled from behind by an unseen attacker. The camera lingers for what feels like an eternity, refusing to cut. She barely manages to escape, only to find the attack has turned her screams to whispers as shock overwhelms her survival instincts. The heartbreak in her eyes briefly turns to hope as she sees a familiar face, but it’s dashed once she realizes they are her attacker.
From the opening we segue to a boisterous bar ironically named The Silent Woman, where the now-slain silent woman had planned to meet her friends. The bar is occupied by the world’s most unoriginal drunks engaging in a rousing refrain of “99 bottles of beer,” much to the chagrin of “The Top 10,” the 10, or now nine, most elite seniors at a prestigious private school. Yes, they’re all rich and a bit snobbish, but they still have room for a creepy kid they jokingly call “the midnight taxidermist.” He and a girl named Virginia arrive separately and are both late. Since the victim was killed by someone she recognized, these two are the first suspects.
Or at least, that’s what you’re supposed to think. This movie plays with perception like it was an overeager puppy. For example, the first death scene is shot, edited, and even scored very differently than a scene a few minutes later where the French exchange student sneaks into Virginia’s closet to watch her undress. But since some slashers would have their second murder by this point, and because this scene adopts the killer’s point of view shot of “Peeping Tom,” “Black Christmas,” etc. we become convinced we’re looking through the eyes of a killer. It’s the type of misdirection this film revels in.
Once it occurred to me just how the filmmakers were toying with the audience, it just made me laugh. It really feels like there’s a guiding hand of a person with a wicked sense of humor behind this—a person who loves film and uses an encyclopedic knowledge to both pay homage and toy with viewer expectation. It’s similar in certain respects to the way that Quentin Tarantino, Joe Dante, and John Waters operate, while not otherwise resembling any of their approaches. I’m assuming that person is the director, J. Lee Thompson, the long-term industry veteran most famous for directing the “Guns of Navarone” and the original “Cape Fear.”
It’s also really fascinating how much this film resembles the Italian Giallo films, with its extended murder sequences perpetrated by a mysterious masked killer with black gloves, and a whodunit plot that constantly shifts suspicion. I’d be curious to find out if the work of Bava, Argento, or Fulci were influences on “Happy Birthday to Me.”
Some of this film’s other strengths are its inventive and memorable death scenes, its overall Bob Clark like atmosphere, its winking inclusion of flashbacks marked by Douglas Sirk levels of melodrama, and its nod to technological fear and body horror pictures as we learn that our ingenue Virginia was once a braindead vegetable pulled from the brink by scientific advancement.
As far as weaknesses, its overall run time and its ever-shifting tone might not work for some. Also, some viewers may feel fatigued by the “suspect everyone” machinations, especially when the film is simultaneously building the case that the meddlesome hand of science has turned Virgina homicidal. But I think the entire series of misdirection is itself indicative of a larger, more audacious slight of hand, one that most people overlook by the time the absolutely brilliant and insane last few scenes arrive. The final twist may seem illogical at first, but upon reflection the possibility was suggested all along through camerawork, through editing, through sound design, through score. What the movie shows isn’t nearly as important as how it shows it.
WORTH A DOUBLE FEATURE?
Overall, this was a very successful double feature for me. The films played together well and had more in common than originally expected. Also, watching them together helped me look more deeply at both of them. Like a magician revealing how a trick is performed, “April Fool’s Day” inspires you to look at the tropes of the slasher genre and how they pull the audience’s strings. This put me in the frame of mind to realize and appreciate the tricks “Happy Birthday to Me” was pulling. “Happy Birthday to Me” is easily one of the best movies of the era for me, and while “April Fool’s Day” doesn’t quite stand up to it, it is definitely a worthy effort.
As always, I can’t watch any double feature without thinking of alternate pairings. Here are a few potential alternatives for each:
For “April Fool’s Day”:
“When a Stranger Calls” (1979) – Fred Walton directed both films, and “April Fool’s Day” was his return to a genre that first got him noticed. The fact that he refused to let genre expectations drive either film is commendable, and they’d probably play well together.
“Murder by Death” (1976) – This parody of country-home dinner-and-a-murder books and movies has a similar structure and twist, though it’s much more comedic, which could provide a nice contrast.
“April Fool’s Day” (2008) – I’m convinced this direct-to-DVD exists only as an elaborate joke. On the slim chance it is real, it might be fun watching it directly after its presumably higher quality source material.
For “Happy Birthday to Me”:
“Black Christmas” (1974) – Bob Clark’s underrated masterpiece and slasher template shares a similar mood, production values, and high-caliber performances, including a “Superman” cast member in a young Margot Kidder.
“Demon Seed” (1977) – The star-studded horror movie deals with a few similar fear-of-technology-based horror elements and has some scenes that rival “Happy Birthday to Me” in pure WTF-ery.
“The American Astronaut” (2001) – This under-seen musical comedy sci-fi western doesn’t appear to have much of anything in common with “Happy Birthday to Me” on the surface, but both are slow-burn movies and there’s a particularly memorable element I don’t want to spoil that would make an excellent punchline to the setup provided by “Happy Birthday to Me.”
The previously released DVD of “Happy Birthday to Me” featured a horrible disco-tinged score in place of the wonderful orchestral original. It has the predictable side effect of making the film more cheesy and undermining its most effective scenes.
Thankfully, Anchor Bay re-released the DVD with the original score intact. Whatever you do, do not rent or buy the copy with incredibly crappy and unrelated cover art to the right. If you want to see just how much a score can affect a film, compare the first video with the original score intact to the second without it.