It’s my birthday today! So, because I love you all very much, I sat down and watched the seriously terrible 1981 slasher film Happy Birthday To Me. It’s bad. Really bad. And not even in that “so bad it’s good way”. Nope, just bad. But the film did leave me thinking about what we can learn from bad writing. By studying the places the script for Happy Birthday to Me went so horribly off the rails, what lessons can we apply to our own stories, particularly within gory tales of suspense and murder?
(This review/analysis is going to be full of spoilers, but really, do you care? It’s a horrible movie that came out before you were born. Have I mentioned that it’s not very good??)
The big problem that Happy Birthday to Me suffers from is unclear or nonsensical character motivations. While the first few murders are committed anonymously, the second half of the movie shows the main character, Ginny, carrying out the gruesome attacks. It is coming up on her birthday, you know. And what better birthday treat than to hide out in parking lots strangling people in their cars, and dropping heavy weights on people’s “sensitive areas” in the school gym? However, in a Scooby-Doo style demasking moment, it turns out that it wasn’t the birthday girl at all, but her best friend, Ann.
The question is, why? Ann says it is because she secretly hates Ginny, and blames Ginny for Ann’s father walking out on her family. So this explains why she would want to kill Ginny, and also the characters of Ginny’s father, and Ginny’s psychiatrist, David. Both of them are men that are supportive of Ginny in a way that Ann’s father was not, and neither one of them does Ann have a personal connection with herself. Yet, these are the two most unplanned murders– David’s body left discarded in the rain, and Ginny’s father only included in the “birthday celebration” when he manages to, somewhat unexpectedly, come home early from a business trip.
Furthermore, Ann’s stated motivation completely falls apart when we look at the deaths of Burnadette, Etienne, Greg, Alfred, and Steve. These were Ann’s friends as well as Ginny’s, and Ann did not seem to have any particular anger towards them, indeed, they were some of her oldest friends, being part of the group that four years ago had decided to go to Ann’s house instead of to Ginny’s middle school birthday party. They also were not even Ginny’s closest friends. Ginny’s middle school party guest list had been picked by her mother, and, although now belonging in the same high school social club, Ginny was much closer to some of the other group members, such as Rudi or Ann herself, than Greg, who she hardly spoke to, or Burnadette, whose early disappearance didn’t seem to bother Ginny at all.
Motivation matters, and this is part of what’s so frustrating with the plot of Happy Birthday to Me. Ann had no reason to kill the people that she did. She certainly didn’t need to kill them while wearing a mask of Ginny’s face. As corpses, who were they going to tell?
People who discuss creative writing in academic circles like to debate character versus plot, as if there was some kind of dichotomy. One of the things that has made the YA/NA field so interesting in the last several years is a growing acknowledgement that both are necessary. Character driven pieces, in which characters have clear motivations, but often fail to take action on them, can often be boring and unsatisfying. Plot driven pieces, such as Happy Birthday to Me which are action-packed but motivationally unclear, are chaotic and also unsatisfactory. By making sure our own creative characters have reasons for killing off five of their closest friends, we can have our birthday cake, and eat it too.