Horror Movie Watch: Rigor Mortis

Our hero, Chin, on a move-in day like no other.

Our hero, Chin, on a move-in day like no other.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is Hong Kong vampire homage Rigor Mortis (2013), directed by Juno Mak (his directorial debut), and recommended by friend Charmaine Pang. (I knew Charmaine and I would get along when – while at Centennial College together – one of the first things we did was decide who would among our class of 47 would win in a Battle Royale death match.)

A big shout-out to Queen Video, who provided the DVD of Rigor Mortis, and who has currently been recommending it over their Twitter account. (And before we get into the plot too much, I issue a trigger warning here for rape.)

What happens:

Rigor Mortis, while a serious horror/action movie, is a tribute of sorts to the more comic series of ‘hopping vampire’ Hong Kong films of the 1980s (the most well-known of those being Mr. Vampire). While I’ve seen at least one of those Hong Kong vampire films, my background in them is not extensive. Though I surely missed many references to the earlier films, I still really enjoyed this very spooky and different take on the vampire genre.

Like Sunset Boulevard before it, Rigor Mortis opens with the end: a tableau on a concrete street block – one man bleeding to death on the ground, the other injured and smoking while propped up against a wall. We then return to the beginning, where our narrator – whose name I never caught, but according to IMDB is named Chin Siu-Hou (which is funny, as that’s the actor’s real name) – says he used to be a fairly successful actor, but has fallen on hard times. He’s moved into a crumbling apartment block, and Chin is a little depressed. As he says, ‘Smiling is tiring. I’m very tired.’ It’s not fully explored, but he’s estranged from his wife and son, and he sometimes listens to a phone message recording of his son when he’s feeling blue. The apartment’s super, Uncle Yin, greets him and lets him into Room 2442, assuring him, despite the derelict look of the building, it’s a safe neighbourhood. Inside the apartment, Yin – after remarking that they’ve never had a famous tenant before –conducts a ritual with incense to pay respects to the spirits.

The next we see Chin, he’s about to hang himself from the ceiling fan. He listens to the phone message of his son one last time, looks at the watch his son drew on his wrist in ink, then suddenly has a dark vision of his son and wife in the kitchen, flooded with blood. He panics and falls off his chair, slowly hanging himself. As he does, he experiences disturbing visions. Dark spirits begin to infuse his body. That’s when, from out of nowhere, a neighbour in his underwear and robe busts through the door, frees Chin from the noose, and forces the evil spirits out of Chin (through a combination of kung fu and making the spirits look in a mirror). The neighbours gather as Chin recovers, but they’re a bit spooked by the apartment. It probably doesn’t help that Chin vomits black ink for minutes – a lengthy sequence second only to Team America: World Police – immediately after coming to.

Chin reaches out to Li'l Andy Warhol.

Chin reaches out to Li’l Andy Warhol.

Now would be a good time to describe some of the tenants of this unusual apartment building. I’ve talked quite a bit about Chin and Uncle Yin already. The robed man who saved Chin from the spirits is Yau, the manager/owner of a noodle place on the apartment’s ground floor. The building also is home to Auntie Mui, who does a lot of sewing for the apartment tenants; her husband, Tung; and a mysterious man named Gau, who everyone seems fairly reverent to. A woman, Feng, and her albino child Pak also roam the hallways of the apartment building. Chin often finds them stealing food left outside his door by Yau. The apartment complex doesn’t allow for a lot of privacy: people are always going in and out of other people’s apartments, and doors are rarely closed. Brother Yau, who wears what you or I would consider pyjamas at all times – even when manning the cash register at the restaurant – gives Chin the lay of the land while he’s visiting the restaurant. Chin befriends Auntie Mui and asks if she might repair some of his old film costumes. That night, while taking down the garbage, Tung is startled by ghost child, and – in a cringeworthy scene – breaks his neck falling down the stairs.

A later conversation between Chin and Yau about glutinous rice reveals that Yau’s father was a vampire hunter. Glutinous rice was once used to protect against vampires, but since there are no vampires left, the vampire hunters all became cooks. Chin thanks Yau for saving his life, but Yau points out that he just prevented Chin from doing what he wanted to do: commit suicide. Auntie Mui, having found her husband’s dead body, takes Tung to Gau. Gau is a practitioner of black magic: he tells Mui to bury Tung’s body in soil in the bathtub, sew his wounds closed (including a nasty gash along one side of this face), and feed him crows’ blood. She is to keep him in a raised coffin overnight and to never take off his mask of coins for any reason. Gau says Tung’s spirit should return in seven days. Other tenants wonder where Tung has gone, but Mui says he’s just been ill and she has to take care of him in her apartment.

When Chin finds Feng and her son Pak again stealing his food, he invites them in, but Feng is terrified of his apartment. Chin asks the super, Yin, about the two of them and he tells them their very sad (and disturbing) story. Feng and Pak used to live in Chin’s apartment, Room 2442. Feng’s husband tutored twin sisters, but one day, he attempted to violently rape one of the twins (even pinning her hand to the table with a knife). The other twin came upon this scene and stabbed the husband to death with a pair of scissors. When Feng came back to the apartment that night, her loathsome husband was dead, and both twins had killed themselves. (This seems like it would be an important story to tell the new tenant before he moves into the apartment.) Feng’s mental state has suffered ever since, so Uncle Yin houses her and Pak and watches out for them. Meanwhile, Mui spends her nights in her apartment pleading with the unresponsive body of Tung to come back to her.

Chin goes over to restaurateur Yau’s apartment for dinner and notices the place is full of ghosts; Yau calls them his ‘flatmates.’ Peering over his wooden Harry Potter glasses, Yau says the ghosts have been here much longer than he, so he made sure they developed a good relationship. Chin shows Yau some of Pak’s spooky drawings and asks if he’ll help him aid the troubled family. Yau says he’s tried and Feng can’t be helped. Plus, he adds, going for Chin’s throat, how is Chin in a position to help anyone? He’s a mess, fresh off a suicide attempt, still wearing his child’s watch drawing on his wrist. Disheartened, Chin trudges back to his apartment and gets a bucket of blood splashed in his face the moment he opens the door. Gau was hiding in his apartment, and he chokes Chin and puts a paper spell (or fu) on his forehead. The actions bring out the spirits of the dead twin girls, one of whom possesses Chin. Gau and Chin then engage in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Yau senses the altercation downstairs and runs up to aid Gau. Together, they are able to free Chin from the one spirit and, using blood-soaked twine, bind the twin ghosts and trap them in a wardrobe. When Gau thanks Yau for his assistance, Yau slaps him for using the actor as bait. Gau says he’ll take the wardrobe and set it on fire in a special ceremony.

Things look better for a short while. Chin washes off the watch on his wrist (he’s moving on), and Pak and Feng are able to visit him in the old apartment (though they have to get rid of the furniture first, because of the terrible flashbacks). Mui begins to grow impatient and complains to Gau that his magic isn’t working. Tung’s spirit hasn’t come back. Uncle Yin, now really suspicious about Tung’s disappearance, starts to believe Feng’s earlier claim that ‘some guy with a bunch of kids’ killed Tung. He visits Auntie Mui, who – surprise, surprise – has Gau over, and asks them a bunch of leading questions (while surreptitiously dropping candy on the ground to see if any ghost children pick it up). Suspecting Gau is still ‘messing around with that black magic shit,’ Yin confronts him, and is quickly (and viciously) bludgeoned to death by Mui and her stone bowl. Mui continues her journey to the dark side: when Pak starts hanging around her apartment, she traps him in the storage room with her now vampiric husband. The resulting screams and banging on the door are haunting.

When his vampire hunter father’s weird heirloom disc thing starts moving on its own, Yau realizes something dark is happening in the building. He visits Gau and finds the apartment covered in blood. Gau, who was already dying of lung cancer, has had his throat torn out. He confesses to Yau that he helped Mui turn Tung into a vampire, and was planning to put the dead twins’ spirit into his body. (That is, the wardrobe with the twin ghosts hasn’t been destroyed.) Looking around the apartment, Yau sees white-blond hair and realizes that the vampire has completely torn Pak apart. Feng, wandering the halls, searching for her son, encounters the wardrobe, rocking and rumbling. She opens it up hoping to find Pak, but inadvertently frees the ghost twins. She continues her search (unable to see the ghosts) and encounters the vampire. The vampire (Tung) looks very Nosferatu-like (bald head, long nails), but with a really nasty open scar on the one side of his face. He both glides across the floor and occasionally leaps to get around. A fight between Feng and the vampire ensues (during which Feng somehow picks up a spiked baseball bat), and Feng is impaled and killed. The actor, Chin, comes across this and tosses a firebomb at the vampire. The vampire and ghosts meld into one to make a super-monster, and skewer Chin with a long metal rod.

The actor, leaking, like, a literal river of blood, staggers to Yau’s apartment, where he’s been prepping for vampire battle. Yau does some emergency triage on Chin, then (a) writes a spell in blood on his chest, and (b) mops a spell in Chin’s blood on the hallway floor. He tells Chin he’ll have the length of a cigarette to defeat the vampire/ghost hybrid: after the lit cigarette meets its end, his time is up. Yau will conduct spells using that weird disc thing while Chin battles the vampire, hand-to-hand. What follows is an epic kung fu battle, rife with special effects that look like they came out of The Cell: Chin fights the vampire as Yau works the spell disc (which eventually twists off his right arm with its endless revolutions – yikes!). Finally, using the fire spell, Yau turns the vampire to ash as he, it, and Chin fall off the side of the apartment building (which is where our story began). Auntie Mui walks up to what remains of her husband and slashes her own throat with a large piece of glass to join him in death. However, that’s not the end, readers! What we see next is Chin again moving into the apartment complex (which looks a bit nicer and sunnier this time around). He encounters a happy widow (Feng) and her son in the elevator. Mui lives on her own; a picture of her dead husband, Tung, sits on the mantle. Chin is successful in committing suicide, as Yau discovers him too late, and Gau is the doctor who declares him dead at the hospital. The final shot of the film is Chin’s son identifying his dead body.

Tung as one of the scarier vampires I can recall.

Tung as one of the scarier vampires I can recall.

Takeaway points:

  • As you may have gathered, Chinese vampires (or jiangshi) are a bit different from the vampires of Eastern European folklore. Popularized by films like Mr. Vampire, jiangshi are usually depicted as reanimated corpses dressed in garments from the Qing Dynasty who move about by hopping with their arms outstretched like a traditional zombie. And like the Eastern European vampires, they have a particular set of rules and methods of protection (such as mirrors, items made of wood, glutinous rice, and fire, among other things). While the vampire in Rigor Mortis doesn’t exactly hop in the traditional fashion (see this clip for some of that), it does leap and glide! But this vampire is much more serious business than the vampires in those mostly comedic movies. The film also – in a nice touch – uses the actors from many of those 1980s films in the principal roles of Rigor Mortis, much like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle featured now middle-aged or older legends of Hong Kong martial arts films. Most spookily, Chin Siu-ho seems to be playing himself (a la Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD), which must be strange for him, as he commits suicide in the movie.
  • Though it’s an action film, in essence, what struck me about Rigor Mortis is how much the movie is about loneliness: everyone in that apartment is so incredibly lonely. Chin is driven to suicide by his estrangement from his family. Feng and Pak have each other, but are treated mostly as pariahs by everyone save Uncle Yin. The death of Tung makes Mui so lonesome she turns to Gau and the dark arts to get him back, in a plot similar to that of Pet Sematary and even – to some extent – my last film, Deathdream. Mui’s monologue about growing old alone as she circles Tung’s vampiric corpse is terribly sad. Loneliness makes us do strange, sometimes awful things, Rigor Mortis seems to tell us. But companionship, such as when Chin reaches out to Feng and Pak, can be life-saving.
  • One thing I love about Chinese hopping vampires is the power of the written word has in their legend. In European folklore, writing down some words won’t help you one lick in combating the undead. But with jiangshi, you can write a spell on a strip of paper and stick it to a vampire’s forehead to stop them in their tracks. It’s like a spooky game of Headbanz! As someone who works with words, I am fond of the reverence the written word is given in Chinese supernatural folklore. Plus, it makes for some great visuals on film. How cool did it look when Yau wrote hanzi on the hallway floor using a mop and the gallons of blood that Chin had recently lost?
  • What does that ending mean? Right? It’s a real Wizard of Oz thing, where all the characters from the more fantastical story appear in the ‘realistic’ story that follows. Tung was dead, not a vampire. And Gau wasn’t a dark occultist, just a doctor. Was the entire vampire story Chin’s mind coping with his own incredible despair and eventual suicide? Was it his personal dealing with the heady concept of death, though the scrim of his own vampire films? It’s left fairly open-ended – like that spooky episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she’s in a mental institution – with the audience left to either believe the legend or the grim reality.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Truly terrifying. In reality, Rigor Mortis is more of an action movie than horror movie (like Underworld, but way better). Still, there are some genuine scares. The vampire (or jiangshi) is one of the scarier movie vampires I’ve seen, and the ghost twins move in an unearthly and creepy fashion – think of the staircase scene in The Grudge or that unsettling surveillance video of Elisa Lam. (But don’t click that link if you ever want to sleep again.)

Brother Yau, normcore for life.

Brother Yau, normcore for life.

Best outfit: The fashion in Rigor Mortis is totally normcore. Everyone is wearing white T-shirts and gray sweatpants. Anything fashion that can be considered interesting or unusual is kept wrapped up in plastic: Chin’s old film costumes. Brother Yau should be singled out for taking normcore to the next level, though, walking around in his underwear, slippers, and robe, whether he’s managing his restaurant or in pitched battle with vampires. The fact that his wooden glasses look like they could be sold by Rapp Optical is a nice contrast to his steadfastly normcore and ultra-casual look.

Best line: ‘The cigarettes I smoke are made from the ashes of the unborn.’ – Gau, prophesying the next step after vaping.

Best kill: Auntie Mui’s stone-bowl braining of Uncle Yin is so sudden and unexpected, it left a strong impression. It was particularly affecting, as Yin was such a pleasant and sympathetic character.

Unexpected cameo: As mentioned in the ‘Takeaway Points,’ almost the entire cast appear in the more comic Mr. Vampire film series of which Rigor Mortis is a sort of tribute. Chin Siu-ho is sort of playing himself as the former star of those movies. But Anthony Chan (Yau), Richard Ng (Tung), and Fat Chung (who plays Gau) were also featured in that film series. Fat Chung was also in another Hong Kong classic horror comedy, Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind.

Unexpected lesson learned: It couldn’t hurt to have glutinous rice on you at all times. Just in case. Also, a good realtor can give you a full account of an apartment’s history.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Room 2442

Next up: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).

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Horror Movie Watch: Deathdream

Andy has regrets about joining that Fight Club.

Andy has regrets about joining that Fight Club.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is Deathdream (or Dead of Night) (1972), directed by modern horror pioneer Bob Clark (Black Christmas, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things), and recommended by friend Alison Lang, editor of Broken Pencil and incredible horror aficionado. (I once went to a lecture Lang gave about depictions of cults in horror movies at The Black Museum speaking series, and it was one of the best lectures I’ve ever seen.)

A big shout-out to Queen Video, who provided the DVD of Deathdream that I watched and enjoyed. They have a sizeable horror selection for all your viewing needs.

What happens:

Deathdream, which is also known as Dead of Night (that’s what the in-movie title calls it), is a movie I’d often heard about, but never seen. It’s usually mentioned in the same breath as Black Christmas, as another early modern horror movie directed by Bob Clark, before he turned his attentions to humour (Porky’s, A Christmas Story, and … ugh … Baby Geniuses), and written by Alan Ormsby. Given the pedigree of Clark, I should have known to expect something outstanding. Deathdream is a tight little Twilight Zone episode turned very bitter.

The film opens with a firefight in a Vietnam jungle. We see two American soldiers – Darren and Andy – who are both shot and (seemingly) killed. The camera zooms in on Andy’s shocked face as an otherworldly voice echoes, ‘You can’t die … you promised you’d come back.’ We next see the Brooks family – parents Charlie and Christine and teenaged daughter Cathy – around the dinner table, saying grace. Christine says an extra-special prayer for her son, Andy, who is soldiering overseas. Mom, aside from noting that ‘a man should always do the carving’ (foreshadowing?), spends much of dinner talking about Andy, as much as the other family members try to change the topic. There’s a knock at the door and a representative of the military delivers a letter to Charlie that says their son, Andy, died in action. ‘It’s a lie!’ Christine shouts. That night, Charlie is awakened in the middle of the night by his wife, Christine, rocking in a chair in the other room, lit only by the candle she holds in her hand, mumbling to ‘Andy’ about how he promised he’d return.

Late that night, a trucker, Howie, picks up a solider on the edge of town. Stopping by a truck stop diner for some coffee, he tells the server and stuttering chef (real characters, the both of them) that he’s picked up a soldier who’s barely said two words. In the middle (or dead?) of the night, Cathy is awakened by sounds downstairs. She wakes her father, and the whole family goes downstairs to investigate. At first, it appears just to be the family dog, but then they see Andy (Richard Backus), in formal military uniform, behind the door. The family is elated! Clearly the military made some sort of clerical error, because Andy is alive and well in their living room. They sit him down at the kitchen table and pepper him with questions; they’re so excited to have Andy back they don’t take much note that all his answers are bizarre. When his father asks if it was rough ‘over there,’ Andy answers, ‘Over where?’ And when they say that they were told he was dead, Andy says, ‘I was.’ Several uncomfortable beats follow, then they burst into awkward laughter, with the camera trained for avdisturbingly long sequence on the family members’ laughing mouths.

End of story, right? Well, maybe not. The trucker that picked Andy up is found in the morning, his throat horribly cut (it’s pretty gross). An autopsy by local doctor Philip Allman (‘Doc’ to friends) reveals a needle mark on is arm. Charlie and Christine still can’t believe that Andy’s back. They keep saying, ‘It’s a miracle!’ and Andy seems super-unimpressed. The postman, Ben, drops by, and he and Andy’s father trade old war stories from World War II. ‘That was quite a war, that WWII,’ the postman declares. ‘Lost a lot of good boys. Kept some of the ones we shouldn’t have, too.’ When the postman asks Andy about his fellow solider, Darren, Andy stares intensely at him and abruptly leaves. The Brooks family explains that Andy needs a lot of time to himself since returning home; they’re trying to keep things low-key. Meanwhile, police question the truck stop staff about Howie’s death and learn that his hitchhiker was a soldier.

Andy has taken to spending much of his time alone, sitting in a rocking chair upstairs and staring into space, which is trying for his family – especially his father. Charlie can’t understand what’s happened to Andy and is angry that his son is so distant and strange since returning home. As Charlie notes, he came home from a war, too, and he wasn’t so strange when he did. The suggestion that Andy enlisted to prove he wasn’t a ‘mama’s boy’ is dropped as the Brooks family continues to implode. That night, Andy sneaks out the local cemetery and begins scratching something unseen into a tombstone. The next day, he’s lounging in the yard in his lawn chair when his father brings by visitors: five neighbourhood kids who ask him countless (frankly inappropriate) questions. Did he kill anyone? How many people did he kill? Did he learn karate? One of the kids tries to demonstrate his own karate moves and Andy swiftly grabs his wrist and twists. The family dog barks at him to stop and Andy picks the dog up with one hand and agonizingly chokes it to death as the other children, traumatized, slink away.

Can't a guy go out to drain some stranger's blood without getting the third-degree from his folks?

Can’t a guy go out to drain some stranger’s blood without getting the third degree from his folks?

The death of the dog frays already strained relations within the family: Charlie fights with his son until Christine intervenes, then later drowns his sorrows at the local bar. It’s there he runs into Dr. Philip ‘Doc’ Allman (who conducted the trucker’s autopsy) and discusses Andy’s strange moods since returning from the war. Doc says he’d like to talk to Andy (especially since he’s heard the prime suspect in the trucker’s death is a soldier) and Charlie brings him immediately home. Christine has already warned daughter Cathy not to believe anything her father says about her or Andy, and is further outraged when he shows up with some doctor in the middle of the night. Doc finds Andy rocking in his favourite chair, and when they talk, he’s cagey, though he does admit he hitchhiked to get home. As he exits the Brooks’ household, Doc warns Charlie he’ll have to tell the police about this, but Charlie convinces him to wait until tomorrow. He wants to talk to Andy first. But when he goes upstairs to speak to his increasingly strange son, he finds he’s left.

Andy tails Doc in his car back to his office. Doc, feeling creeping unease as he wanders through the rooms of his office. He dials the police but hesitates when they answer. By the time he begins to talk – to tell them about Andy – the telephone line is cut. Andy eventually appears with a jump-scare in Doc’s office. He’s come for a check-up. But Andy knows that something is clearly wrong with him: he asks Doc to check his pulse and use a stethoscope to check his heartbeat, knowing he doesn’t have any. He turns on the doctor then, his face turning twisted. ‘You owe me, Doc!’ he shouts, as he stabs him repeatedly with a hypodermic needle. When Doc is dead, Andy – looking more corpse-like than ever – extracts some of the doctor’s blood and tries to transfuse it into himself.

As unscientific as that may have been, it seems to have worked. In the morning, Andy is looking a bit more human. His sister Cathy tells him that she’s arranged a double-date: she and her boyfriend Greg, Andy and his old sweetheart Joanne. Joanne, who works at a florist, is informed about the date and is elated to have Andy back home. She didn’t know he was even back from the war, as Andy has kept news about his return limited. Charlie, meanwhile, learns that Doc has been killed and suspects the worst. However, he can’t shake his loyalty to his son. When he goes to the police station to confess, he doesn’t mention his son and speaks in vague, misleading terms. (The annoying cop who keeps playing with the Venetian blinds would have driven me to make their job harder, too.) Andy preps for his date: he seems to be rotting again, so he’s going to need to cover that up. When Joanne arrives, Andy is wearing mirrored sunglasses, long sleeves, a turtleneck, and black leather gloves. Acting normal, so no suspicion is aroused. The gang of four heads over to the drive-in restaurant, followed by a drive-in movie.

When Charlie finds out that his son went on a double-date, he flies into a rage, shaking his wife violently and grabbing a gun as he heads out the door. During the double-date, Cathy and Greg leave for the concession stand and leave Andy and Joanne some time to catch up. Cathy wonders if, maybe, they can pick up where they left off. Andy responds by staring out the window as blood seeps down his face. Cathy screams and Andy begins to throttle her. In the struggle, she knocks off his sunglasses, revealing his intense spooky eyes. Cathy and Greg return to the car, ignorant of anything sinister – at first, it looks like Andy and Joanne are just making out in the back of the car. But then Andy raises his head to reveal blood all over his mouth and a crazed look on his cratered face. He immediately chokes Greg to death as Cathy escapes the car. Andy takes the wheel and chases after his sister, running over some poor bystander in the process. Andy bombs back home, where his loving mother helps him back to his room and rocking chair. Dad barges in soon after, his gun aimed at his son, and shouts, ‘Stand up and face me!’ Andy stands and turns, rotting more than ever, and Charlie loses his nerve.

Christine helps her son back downstairs, and on their way to the family car they hear a gunshot. Charlie has killed himself. In the driveway, police shoot Andy in the chest, but it has little effect. Christine drives her decomposing son as a wild chase with the police ensues. Andy directs her to drive to the cemetery as the car catches fire. When they get to the cemetery, police in hot pursuit, Andy crawls into an open grave and begins burying himself. He points at the tombstone, revealing a message he’s scratched into the stone himself: ‘Andy Brooks: 1951 – 1972.’ His tearful mother helps with the burying, with Andy truly looking like a corpse now. The film ends with police walking in on this horrifying scene, terrible piano sounds echoing on the soundtrack.

Andy: a fashion plate, even while shooting up.

Andy: a fashion plate, even while shooting up.

Takeaway points:

    • Deathdream, effective as a horror movie, is even more effective as a metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder. Deathdream is Born on the Fourth of July or The Deer Hunter with zombies. Andy, when he returns from the war is distant, strange. He doesn’t seem like the son or brother or boyfriend who left for the war. In this case, he’s actually dead, but these feelings are very common for families of war veterans. And many soldiers who return home may feel dead inside, or that there’s something profoundly wrong with them. Andy acts out violently – killing dogs and strangers alike – which is akin to how some soldiers find themselves unable to leave the war overseas, starting altercations or committing domestic violence. It’s no mistake that Andy treats his disease by draining his victims’ blood and injecting it into himself instead of, say, biting and drinking it like a traditional vampire. The hypodermic needles echo the self-medication, through drugs, that many veterans engage in. Likewise, it’s when neighbourhood children ask him all the questions you’re not supposed to ask people with PTSD (‘How many people did you kill?’) that he flies into a rage and chokes his own dog. Charlie and the the postman’s recollections of WWII are also fitting, since many people didn’t understand what was happening to the Vietnam vets who returned home, as it never happened to them or the friends they knew after the end of that war. That PTSD didn’t appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980, eight years after this movie was released, makes the realistic (if supernatural) portrait of the illness that much more impressive.
    • Though many horror movies I’ve watched have downbeat or ‘bad’ endings, Deathdream is probably the first horror movie that is really incredibly sad. I can’t think of a sadder image in a horror movie than a rotting Andy, trying to bury himself in his own grave. And Andy’s effect on his family is difficult to watch: they turn on each other, argue violently, lose trust in one another. (I imagine this is not dissimilar to many families in which one member has PTSD.) And his mother’s love – no matter who he kills or how much he looks like a zombie – is really heartbreaking. Some have argued the film is uneven because Andy is not a remorseful killer until the very end. He seems to have no compunction in killing people until the finale, when he decides to embrace death and literally crawls into his own grave. But I think this is intentional. Like many people suffering mental illnesses, to the outside – unfortunately – Andy first appears like a jerk; his actions seem selfish. And it’s only when he takes his own life (for what he does at the end is a form of suicide) that others realize what he was going through, and the profound sadness of Andy’s death in life hits home.
    • Watching Deathdream, I can see how strongly it influenced George A. Romero‘s later work. For one, Deathdream is horror makeup master Tom Savini‘s first credited work, and you can see how the look of Andy influenced the look of the zombies in Dawn of the Dead. But Deathdream is even more influential on Romero’s gritty Martin, a film that also takes place in a small town and features a son that everyone feels is a bit off. There’s a kitchen-sink realism and uncomfortable blending of the all-too-real and supernatural that makes both movies so unsettling.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Truly terrifying. But also soul-shatteringly sad. I think I’ve already established in this series that horror movies from the 1970s are the ones I find scariest, and I’d be lying if I pretended I haven’t been looking over my shoulder and double-checking the mirrors in my apartment to make sure Andy isn’t there. And though many great horror movies are real downers, this one left me sadder than most. I wouldn’t recommend watching it late at night if you’re going to be alone with your thoughts for a few days afterward.

Andy, acting natural on his double-date.

Andy, acting natural on his double-date.

Best outfit: There are some prime specimens of early ’70s fashion in Deathdream, with standouts being Joanne’s red diagonal plaid overalls dress thing and Andy’s stunning blue paisley shirt (the one he murders Doc in). Who knew rudderless dead shells of human beings could be such trend-setters? But once Andy walked down the stairs for his date in mirrored shades, a white turtleneck, and black leather gloves, I knew I’d found my fashion winner. In attempting to cover up his increasingly corpsified look, he ends up looking like the lost member of Bauhaus.

Best line: ‘I died for you, Doc. Why shouldn’t you return the favour?’ – Andy, getting a little too real.

Best kill: Though I’m usually averse to scenes of animal cruelty in movies (and real life, obvi), it’s hard to argue with the sheer horror of Andy’s sudden killing of the family dog.

Unexpected cameo: If the Brooks’s patriarch, Charlie, looks familiar, that’s because he’s played by John Marley, who you may remember as Jack Woltz, the guy who woke up to a horse head in his bed in The Godfather.

Unexpected lesson learned: If you encounter a Vietnam vet who looks like he’s having a difficult time adjusting to civilian life, don’t try out your sweet new karate moves on him.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Everett County (which is where the Brooks family lives)

Next up: Rigor Mortis (2013).

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Horror Movie Watch: Pin

Don't you want this guy teaching you about sex?

Don’t you want this guy teaching you about sex?

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is cult Canadian classic (and all-around strange movie) Pin (1988), directed by Sandor Stern, and recommended by friend Jo-Anne Wilson, a friend who works at the University of Toronto’s English Department and enthusiast of fine literature (at least, she was a big fan of Coach House Books).

In this particular case, I have to thank Bay Street Video, as one of the Queen Video clerks actually had Pin rented (it’s that good). While quite a bit further from my apartment, Bay Street Video is a really excellent video store. This is a film I watched with a few friends: horror movie stalwarts Emma Woolley, Annie Gibson, and Phil Bardach, and I tried to remember to credit them for their insights.

What happens:

Are you ready to be creeped out? Because I’m certain just describing the plot of Pin will give you the willies. And if you have a weird thing about dolls or automatons, you should probably just stop reading. Pin opens with a bunch of kids hiding behind a berm as they spy on a large house in which a man is seated in the upstairs window. One young turk decides he’s going to find out if the figure at the window is real or a dummy. He climbs to the window and what appears like an impassive, plastic face suddenly blinks. He and his compatriots run screaming and the film fades to black.

We start again, fifteen years earlier, as two really proper, blond kids – Leon and Ursula – prepare for bed. They interrupt their paediatrician father, Dr. Frank Linden (Terry O’Quinn!), who is pretending to conduct a symphony on TV. (That’s cool, I guess) Before he’ll allow them to go to bed, he quizzes them on basic math. (Their mother also vacuumed the floor moments after they finished their pre-sleep snack, so it’s a less than free-wheeling household.) The next day, the good doctor brings his young children into one of his appointments. We learn that one of Dr. Linden’s weird quirks is he uses the life-sized medical dummy (think, one of those ‘visible man‘ models) named ‘Pin’ to explain various medical issues and bodily functions, via ventriloquism, to his young patients and children. The children begin to think that Pin is real.

That's MUCH better ....

That’s MUCH better ….

A few years later, the Linden household is as stuffy as ever. Leon and Ursula’s mother discourages the children from having friends because they’re filthy and carry disease. (Mom is really into cleanliness.) Pin becomes Leon’s only friend, despite the fact that he won’t talk to him when his father isn’t around. One day, when he’s alone with Pin, telling him about his day, a nurse sneaks in, and Leon hides. Leon learns about the facts of life the hard way … or a way that literally no one else ever has … when he secretly watches the nurse remove Pin’s modesty towel and has sex with the anatomically correct dummy. (Confusingly, Pin is on top in this scenario.) One can assume this triggers all sorts of psychosexual dysfunction in Leon. Though his parents are unaware of what he’s seen, they continue to encourage Leon’s belief that Pin is real, presenting Ursula with birthday presents both from them and from Pin. (Pin is a really thoughtful gift-giver.)

That night, Ursula and Leon are hanging out in bed together, while Ursula casually peruses a pornographic magazine. Leon, ever the charmer, fat-shames one of Ursula’s friends, then blows a gasket when Ursula dares to criticize Pin. When Mom drops in and sees what Ursula is reading, the parents realize it’s time to tell the kids about the birds and the bees. Or rather, it’s time to have Pin lecture them on human sexuality, inviting the kids to take off his modesty towel. Pin informs them that ‘just as people get thirsty for water, people get thirsty for sex.’ Later, in the yard, the siblings discuss what they leaned from Pin. Leon doesn’t feel the need to have sex. He’s not old enough yet, he affirms. But Ursula can’t wait until she has the need. ‘I think it will be fun!’ she beams. So when we zoom forward a few years to when Leon and Ursula are teenagers, local goons have graffitied If you want an easy screw, Ursula will do on her locker and UrsulaLeon (David Hewlett) has a real problem with sex – especially when it involves his sister – so he drags Ursula’s sexual partner out of the car and viciously beats him. He forces Ursula to promise never to have sex again (it seems?). Leon’s misogynist slut-shaming is all the more troubling because he’s grown up to be distressingly hot.

Despite Leon’s best and creepiest efforts to control his sister, she winds up pregnant, and Leon insists she tell the Doctor (which is what they call their father, like most kids do). Leon thinks they should go to Pin for advice, but Ursula reminds him that Pin won’t speak to them without the Doctor around. (Duh.) Still, Leon insists, and when they ask advice from Pin, Pin eventually responds in his creepy dummy voice. Ursula is astonished that her brother learned ventriloquism. Or is something else afoot? Either way, Pin agrees with Leon, and Ursula tells her dad about the pregnancy, which leads to the creepiest scene I’ve seen in a horror movie so far: Ursula has an abortion at the hands of her own father. (I’ll give you some time to throw up now.) He even invites Leon to watch, as he could ‘learn something.’ (You probably need to throw up again.) Mercifully, he refuses.

One night, Dr. Linden and his wife head off to a big social event, leaving Leon home to work on his college admissions. But en route to the party, Linden realizes he forgot to bring along the medical case histories; he has to drive back to his office. When he gets there, he finds Leon talking to Pin and Pin talking back. Horrified, Dr. Linden tells Leon never to go into his office alone again, and – in true repressed WASP fashion – asks him to leave through the back entrance so his mother doesn’t know he was there. Not trusting his son, Linden covers Pin in a blanket, hauls him into the backseat of the car, and zooms off toward the party. But Linden starts sweating, driving erratically, and glancing nervously at the shrouded figure in the back of the car. A rough patch of potholes knocks the shroud free, revealing Pin’s skinless face and unnerving Dr. Linden to such a degree that he crashes the car and kills both himself and his wife. (Pin, you’ll be relieved, survives the crash.)

At the funeral, Ursula and Leon’s Aunt Dorothy shows up to say she’ll be moving in soon. After all, Ursula is a minor and Leon and she can’t just live on their own. This upsets Leon to an unreasonable degree. But before Dorothy moves in, Leon and Ursula run wild, peeling the plastic covers off the furniture, eating pizza straight from the box, not even cleaning up until morning. But it’s not all teenaged rebellion. For instance, against Ursula’s express wishes, Leon has brought Pin into the house. (But at least he’s given him some clothes: his father’s old suit. Not Freudian at all.) Ursula argues that Aunt Dorothy won’t want Pin around, and Leon suggests she won’t be sticking around for long. That’s about the time Ursula starts spending a lot of hours at the library and reading up on schizophrenia.


Just a normal family dinner.

Just a normal family dinner.

Aunt Dorothy does move back in, reinstating the ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ aesthetic. Ursula mentions that she found a job at the library, and Leon, like the abusive partner that he longs to be, goes ballistic. Why does Ursula need a job?! That night, Leon drugs Ursula, freeing him to scare Dorothy into leaving. He wakes his aunt by putting Pin in her bed and whispering to her in Pin’s voice. The resulting scare causes Dorothy to collapse from a heart attack. But with Dorothy in the hospital, Leon is free to let his freak flag fly: he makes skin and hair for Pin, who starts to resemble the John Malkovich statue at the world’s worst wax museum; he pursues his writing career (of course he’s a writer); he becomes violently angry whenever Ursula criticizes Pin. But Leon’s perfect home is ruined when sensitive guy Stan Fraker starts dating his sister. They even get so close that Ursula buys Stan a really neat digital watch. Leon calls up high school friend Marcia to take her on a hate-date and get back at Ursula, but when Marcia undresses, Leon freezes, claiming that he’s worried his roommate Pin will barge in. He’s unable to perform and Marcia begins to leave. Shamed by his inability to perform sexually, he terrorizes poor Marcia by placing Pin in an electric wheelchair and tormenting her with the creepy dummy.

Leon invites Stan over for a nice family dinner, and Stan arrives with a box of chocolates, which Leon passes right along to Pin. He then introduces Stan to Pin while Ursula checks on the coq a vin, and Stan, like the socially adept, feather-haired hunk he is, plays along, chatting Pin up. They sit down for perhaps the most awkward dinner in history, and Stan mistakenly asks to hear some of Leon’s poetry. (Of course he’s a poet.) They move to the drawing room, where Leon regales them with a poem about about an epic hero who decides to rape his sister. Once Leon is out of the room, Stan advises Ursula that Leon needs help, what with the thinking a dummy is real and writing poems about raping his sister. Ursula knows that Leon is a paranoid schizophrenic (though I’m not sure that’s the correct diagnosis), but she doesn’t want her brother institutionalized. Once Stan leaves, Pin warns Leon that Ursula is slipping from the family.

Leon calls Stan and asks him to come over: he’s planning a surprise birthday party for Ursula. Stan, being the golden retriever that he is, falls right into Leon’s trap. Realizing too late that he’s been drugged, he staggers to his feet and attacks Leon, but Leon bludgeons him with a tabletop sculpture, inadvertently knocking Stan’s wristwatch off in the process. Meanwhile, Ursula’s boss gives her the afternoon off because she’s in love (I gotta’ fall in love more often!), and she calls Leon to let him know the news. Leon needs to clean up the mess on the drawing room floor – and fast! Pin advises him to hide Stan’s body in a clear garment bag and bury it under the wood pile at the side of the house (because, I guess, he’s a master criminal). When Ursula returns home, Leon makes up a story about Stan calling to say he had to take care of a sick friend, but with each moment, Leon’s anxiety increases. Ursula calls Stan a few times and Leon chastises her for acting like a jealous girlfriend. (Gaslighting!)

That’s when Ursula hears Stan’s digital watch: it fell under a chair during the struggle in the drawing room. Leon, caught in his lie, admits that Stan was killed, but says, ‘Pin did it!’ Ursula leaves in a rage while Leon grovels at Pin’s feet. Ursula returns with an axe and raises it toward Leon. The film cuts outside, where the police find Stan in the wood pile: he’s still breathing! The film again moves forward a few weeks (or months), with Stan and Ursula pulling up to the Linden family home in their convertible. Ursula goes upstairs where Pin is facing away from her, sitting in his wheelchair, peering out the window. Pin asks Ursula if she’s heard from Leon. She says she hasn’t. The final shot of the film is Pin’s face – or rather, Leon’s face. Leon has become Pin, emulating his voice and made up to look like his only (laytex) friend. When Ursula destroyed Pin, Leon must have had a psychotic break and had his personality taken over completely by the medical dummy.

How does this not look like a scene from Flower in the Attic?

How does this not look like a scene from Flowers in the Attic?

Takeaway points:

    • The horror of Pin is a supremely creepy brand of psychosexual horror. Pin is Flowers in the Attic with a unsettling dummy thrown into the mix. Brother Leon acts like an abusive boyfriend in nearly every scene – controlling his sister, her sexual actions, her work – and is all the more disturbing because an incestual desire underlies his actions. As difficult as an abusive romantic partner is to escape, imagine how much harder it would be if that person were family. And it’s quite explicit in the film that Leon acts the way he does because he fears female sexuality: his mind is frayed by watching the nurse pleasure herself; he can’t handle the thought of his sister having sex; when about to have sex with Marcia, he is overcome with fear and reacts by terrorizing the poor woman. When Ursula mentions Stan while Leon chops wood, he’s suddenly unable to split the logs. Part of what makes Pin so scary is that while Pin may not be real, Leon definitely is. He’s out there every day, calling women a slut on the street corner, trolling (and devising) the GamerGate hashtag on Twitter, telling women if they didn’t want their nude photos stolen, they should have never taken them in the first place.
    • The real question is, who is creepiest? Leon, Pin, or Dr. Linden? Pin looks scary, but Leon is a raving, violent misogynist, and his dad thinks it’s, like, totally kosher to perform his own daughter’s abortion. (Not to mention the whole lesson of human sexuality he teaches his kids through an icky medical dummy.) Before Stan showed up (the #notallmen of this particular horror movie), Pin, despite being a terrifying medical dummy, was the most sympathetic male character of the film.
    • The subtitle of Pin is ‘A Plastic Nightmare,’ but more accurately, this movie is ‘A WASP Nightmare.’ There is so much Protestant repression and propriety in Pin it’s claustrophobic. It’s the Lindens’ obsessive propriety that prevents Leon from being friends with any of the ‘dirty’ neighbourhood children and prevents Dr. Linden from tackling the problem of his son’s severe mental issues head-on. (I imagine this is a not uncommon problem – though perhaps less extreme – in many repressive WASP households. Mental illness is something just not spoken about.) Only Ursula is able – nay, eager – to leave this obsession with appearances and properness behind. In this regard, it’s also telling to compare Stan Fraker’s locks – feathered and free – with that of the gelled, precise haircut of Leon. (A Hitler Youth homage, I assume.)
    • I also wanted to give a quick shout-out to David Hewlett, who did a really convincing job playing the worst brother ever. I felt genuinely uncomfortable watching him sweat and nervously pick his nails as his deception falls apart near the finale.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Truly terrifying. I have to hand it to us Canadians. I can’t imagine an American horror film this weird. Gorier, scarier: sure. But this extremely creepy blend of psychosexual and familial horror is right out of the Canadian thematic handbook. (You’ve seen Guy Maddin‘s films, right?) While nothing will make you jump out of your seat, you’ll feel unsettled and kind of unclean, and you won’t stop ruminating about Pin for at least a few days.

Honourable mention goes to Ursula's childhood dresses.

Honourable mention goes to Ursula’s childhood dresses.

WASP Life.

WASP Life.

Best outfit: Pin is great because it is, for all intents and purposes, a WASP fashion show. It’s difficult to choose a favourite from the selection of crisp white shirts, boat shoes, white Keds, school blazers, and cardigans that Leon and Ursula wear. I think Ursula peaked early, fashion-wise, as her game when she was seven was extra-fierce. (Note the above dresses featuring some bold plaid patterns.) But can it top that blue-and-gold sweater Leon wears while discussing Stan Fraker with Ursula in the garden? I had to rub my eyes to make sure I was really seeing the amazing sweater I thought I was seeing.

Best line: ‘I bet you before they do it, Mother washes his penis with Spic ‘n’ Span.’ – Ursula, thinking about her parents having sex way more than I ever have.

Best kill: Astonishingly, no one is killed in Pin. Not really. Leon and Ursula’s parents die in a car accident, Aunt Dorothy lives through her heart attack, Stan survives his bludgeoning, so it’s really only Pin who dies, axed to death by Ursula. That wins by default.

Unexpected cameo: At first, I was just glad to see Terry O’Quinn (a.k.a. John Locke from Lost, a.k.a. the dad from The Cutting Edge), journeyman character actor, in Pin. I thought I recognized Leon, and a quick IMDB search revealed he’s a key actor the Stargate television series. But the coup de grace is the voice of Pin himself. My fellow viewers and I could not believe the voice of Pin was provided by none other than Jonathan Banks: Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad!

Unexpected lesson learned: When you hide a body, three easy tips: (1) make sure the person is dead, (2) try to use an opaque bag or sack, and (3) maybe don’t hide the body directly outside your house.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Plastic Nightmare

Next up: Deathdream / Dead of Night (1972).

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Horror Movie Watch: Happy Birthday to Me

Once you put a party hat on, you simply can't be sad.

Once you put a party hat on, you simply can’t be sad.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s movie is the very spoiler-worthy (that is, there are a number of twists) Happy Birthday to Me (1981), directed by J. Lee Thompson, and recommended by friend Sammy Younan, the man behind the NewMusic Ten, a discovery site for new musical artists that acts as some kind of anti-iTunes.

In this particular case, I have to give a big thanks to Bay Street Video, as Queen Video’s copy of Happy Birthday to Me was stolen (!). Bay Street Video, while quite a bit further from my apartment, is a really excellent video store. (I signed up for a membership, just so I could rent this movie and the one that follows, Pin.) Again, this is a film I watched with a few friends: horror movie stalwarts Emma Woolley, Annie Gibson, and Phil Bardach.

What happens:

Happy Birthday to Me is one of those classic movies known as much for its video box art as for its content. The 1980s were a heady time for VHS art: as the world of home video boomed, studios put a lot of effort into making memorable, outrageous video cover art, which was often the best part of those movies. And Happy Birthday to Me, depicting a man skewered through his open mouth by a shish kebab, was one of the more memorable.

As we open, Bernadette O’Hara is leaving her apartment late at night and gets tangled up in a dog leash. That dog leash belongs to Mrs. Patterson (who we later learn is her school’s principal), out walking her English bulldog, Winston. Patterson is unhappy Bernadette is heading out to the ‘Silent Woman Tavern’ with her fellow ‘Top Ten’ members instead of studying. At their school, the Crawford Academy, the most popular students are very clearly defined (and limited to ten). Bernadette, taking little regard of Mrs. Patterson’s advice, gets into her car and is choked from behind by some gloved assailant hiding in her car. In a fairly disturbing, excruciatingly long scene, she struggles valiantly with her attacker, kicking at the ceiling, and finally, kicking the door open. When she escapes, she runs into someone she knows as she’s fleeing (they’re wearing the same striped scarf, after all), and feels a sense of relief. But the relief is short-lived when she sees a straight razor in her friend’s hand. The unseen friend-slash-killer cuts Bernadette’s throat.

Over at the tavern, many of the Top Ten (who we see are all wearing that scarf) have already arrived, and are fighting for space at the bar with a bunch of rowdy Shriners. A few of the Top Ten arrive late, like Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson), and nerdy guy Alfred. (You know he’s a nerd because he has glasses, wears a toque at all times, and has a pet rat named ‘George,’ but he wouldn’t look out of place in some of the hipper bars in Toronto nowadays.) The Top Ten, wondering where Bernadette is, tussle with the Shriners. One of the boys puts Alfred’s rat into a beer for the grand poo-bah of the Shriners, chaos ensues, and our teenaged heroes run to their vehicles. The nearby drawbridge begins to raise and they make a split decision to play their ‘game’ wherein they jump the drawbridge with their cars or motorcycles. Rudi (I think?), driving the fourth car in line, chickens out, but Greg, driving a car with both Virginia and her friend Ann inside, makes a dangerous jump, causing some damage to the car, but ultimately surviving. Viriginia (or ‘Ginny’), becomes very upset with Greg’s dangerous driving and runs away. (But apparently she lives nearby, so the Top Ten don’t chase after her.)

Ginny stops in the cemetery on her way home and does a bit of weeding at her mother’s gravesite. (Hedgeclippers have been conveniently left in a box right beside the tombstone!) She returns home, unknowingly stalked by French exchange student (and Top Ten member), Etienne. Ginny greets her dad and kisses him on the lips (gross!), then goes upstairs to change. Etienne, meanwhile has snuck into her bedroom and witnesses her undress and prepare for a bath, but sneaks out before she actually gets into the tub. The next day, during science class, they test the effect of electricity on frog legs. This triggers a flashback in Ginny, and she remembers being in a lab, comatose, but twitching. Eventually, she rises like a vampire, sputtering, ‘M-my birthday.’ The next time she sees her therapist, David (Glenn Ford), she tells him about this recovered memory, and they discuss how she underwent experimental brain surgery a few years ago following an accident at the town’s drawbridge.

Etienne learns an important lesson about proper garage attire.

Etienne learns an important lesson about proper garage attire.

Soon after, another member of the Top Ten dies – though to the student body, these students have just gone missing. After winning a dirt-bike race, Etienne shows Ginny his good-luck charm: a pair of her underpants that he took from her bedroom. (Obviously, Ginny is not happy with him after this.) Shortly thereafter, an unseen killer creeps up on Etienne and throws his scarf into the spinning wheels of his dirt bike, which pulls him to his death. Unaware of what’s happened, Ginny and her friend Ann go looking for nerdy Alfred in the taxidermy lab. (Your school had one of those, right?) Inside, they find a wealth of taxidermied animals, as well as a covered … something … leaking blood into a metal tray. When they pull off the cloth, they find Bernadette’s head! Alfred comes in behind them, speaking ominously, but then reveals that the head is just some movie makeup he’s trying out. (Kind of ghoulish to make a fake severed head of your missing friend, but no one said Alfred was socially adept.) The next day, Principal Patterson has discussion with Ginny in her office (bulldog Winston is also in attendance), to talk about the two disappeared members of the Top Ten, and it becomes clear that the Top Ten are also all from particularly wealthy homes.

Rifts begin to form in the Top Ten: Rudi and Steve fight over the love of Maggie, once it becomes clear Maggie has begun to favour Steve. Ultra-jock Greg is pumping iron one night when the killer walks in and, being the worst spotter ever, just keeps adding more and more weight to Greg’s barbells until he can barely bench it any longer. In the ‘Do you even lift, bro?’ of murders, the killer then drops a weight on his crotch, causing Greg to drop the barbell on his own neck. Amelia, later searching for Greg, is nearly crushed by the murder barbell, precariously leaned against a door. The surviving gang attend the Crawford Academy soccer match, during which jilted lover Rudi becomes hero of the game. With Maggie having moved on to Steve, Rudi starts making eyes at Ginny, and the two spend a little time in the church belfry. Rudi starts acting strangely, talking about a knife and about cutting the rope to the church bell, when Ginny suddenly blacks out and recalls her own (pretty graphic) brain surgery. She comes to in a hospital with Rudi nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, the rector in the church sees blood dripping from the church bell and notices the rope has been cut. The police are (finally) called to investigate.

The members of the Top Ten are interviewed about Rudi’s (and the three other kids’) disappearance in the school library. Police find a school scarf and skull buried in in the campus courtyard, but therapist David (who just always seems to be around) points out that it’s stamped as property of the school science lab. Rudi, while a crowd has gathered around the unearthed skull, reveals himself, alive and well, to Ginny. He cut himself with his knife while severing the church-bell rope, and Ginny ran off. He didn’t realize people were out looking for him. That night Ginny again visits her mother’s grave. Movie makeup aficionado Alfred stalks up behind her and reaches into his pocket. Ginny suddenly turns and stabs him in the gut with her garden shears, killing him. Alfred collapses and drops the flower that he was going to take out of his pocket. It would appear that Ginny is our killer. Or a killer, at least.

That night, Ginny’s overly familiar dad tells her he has to leave for Calgary for work (because of a sudden oil fire, I think?), and he’ll probably miss her upcoming birthday. He suggests she have some friends over and Ginny’s all like, ‘Good idea. I’ll ask my therapist David over for dinner,’ because that’s a normal thing to do. But first she attends a school dance, and finds the relationship wheel still a’turning. Rudi kind of reunites with Maggie, and Steve puts the moves on Ginny, who is totally into it. (Suddenly, Ginny, as friend Emma Woolley noted, has become much more assertive and confident in her interactions with boys.) She invites Steve over to her empty house, and the audience watches as they recline by the fireplace, enjoying some shish-kebab. (At this point, all of us viewers began to tingle with excitement: ‘Is this going to happen?!’) And yes, reader, Ginny does stab poor Steve right in his mouth with that shish kebab.

Shish kebab: the most erotic and dangerous food of the Middle East.

Shish kebab: the most erotic and dangerous food of the Middle East.

Ginny sleeps in the next morning and is awoken by her friend Ann, who wants to go to the mall. Ginny lets her in and takes a shower, during which she recalls her fateful accident: her mom is drinking, angry, driving recklessly, when she drives the car off the drawbridge. Mom tells Ginny to save herself and swim from the sinking car, but Ginny is hit by a barge on the way to the surface. When she wakes from her flashback, she sees her friend Ann dead in the tub, and begins to scream: ‘David! Help me!’ Improbably, David hears her cries and arrives at her house. (At this point, we began to speculate if David lived in the poolhouse or garage.) David, faced with a panicky Ginny, forces her up the stairs to look again in the bathtub, and they find it completely empty. Did she imagine Ann’s dead body? Midnight comes and David, in his open wide-lapeled shirt, wishes his teenaged patient and very gentle ‘Happy birthday.’ (David and Ginny were, like, way too close for my comfort.)

Ann is, however, missing, as police show up at the Wainwright household the next day. Ginny then remembers the complete circumstances of her accident: her mom had arranged a birthday party for Ginny, and invited the kids of six of the richest families in town. But no one showed up. The kids were all at another party, Ann’s, and Ginny wasn’t invited. Her mother, outraged, drags Ginny to the car and they try to crash Ann’s party, but the guard won’t let her on the property. Cryptically, he says that even though the mother is rich now, it doesn’t change who she was. (Mom has a dark past!) It’s around this time that David meets his end. He’s smashed in the head with a fireplace poker, covering the room with all the blood that ever existed. (Seriously, his head must have contained eighteen gallons of blood.) Dad arrives home early from his work trip, but can’t find Ginny. Instead, he finds a room covered in blood. Fearing the worst, her runs over the cemetery (?), passing Amelia (caught out in the rain with a birthday present), and finding his departed wife’s grave unearthed. Inside the coffin: Ginny’s therapist, David.

Father runs to the family cottage (on the very same property) and sees a light has been left on. When he enters, he’s greeted with a very grim tableau: the corpses of the dead Top Ten, alongside the much more decayed corpse of his wife, sitting around a table, as Ginny walks in with a birthday cake. Ginny has recreated that birthday party from years ago, and all the invited guests attended this time around. As Dad sits down in the empty chair and weeps, Ginny puts a party hat on his head (which Emma declared the nicest touch in the film). She offers him some cake, but within seconds, she cuts his throat. That’s when the twist happens!One of the corpses, face down on the table, wakes up and looks exactly like Ginny! The first Ginny (who brought in the cake) rants about how she did all this for her sister, then peels off a mask to reveal that she’s Ann. (What?!) So, here’s the story: Ginny’s mother had an affair with Ann’s mother, which is why the other families hated her and wouldn’t invite her to the party. Ann and Ginny are half-sisters, and Ann hates Ginny and her family, saying they ‘ruined her life,’ though I’m not really sure what evidence there is for that claim. There’s a struggle, during which Ginny wrests the knife from Ann and stabs her in the stomach. A detective then walks in on this macabre spectacle and gasps, ‘What have you done?’

Trust is an important factor in finding a good partner for your gym routine.

Trust is an important factor in finding a good partner for your gym routine.

Takeaway points:

    • I love that Happy Birthday to Me is, first and foremost, a horror movie about class division. It’s basically a John Hughes movie with more murder. Ginny’s family are obviously new money, and there’s some suggestion that Ginny’s mother, in particular, came from lower origins than the rest of the families whose kids attend the Crawford Academy. That she married into money. And her ‘low nature’ is what led her to ‘seduce’ Ann’s father. (Ann’s father is blameless, obviously, because he’s a man. That’s how things work in horror movies … and, sadly, in life.) The Top Ten, who we’re led to believe are the ten most popular kids at the Crawford Academy, are actually just the ones with the wealthiest parents. (Which explains why creepy Alfred managed to squeak into the Top Ten.) The slashing of Happy Birthday to Me is, in essence, guerrilla class warfare. And at first, it appears that new money Ginny is murdering the old money families, but, with the end reveal, we learn that it’s actually – in a more traditional story – old money attempting to punish new money for thinking they’re as good as them.
    • Though I enjoyed Happy Birthday to Me, particularly for its not-so-subtle class consciousness, it suffers from a few too many jump-scares and red herrings. The filmmakers try really hard to make it seem like every member of the Top Ten could be a killer, leading them to do really unlikely things, like sneak up silently on friends (even when three of their peer group have gone mysteriously missing), or say things like ‘You can be my next model,’ when what appears to be a friend’s severed head has been revealed. I understand the need to craft some plausible mystery, but so much points toward Ginny as the killer – her mysterious past, her blackouts – it’s hard to take any of the other options seriously.
    • Apparently, Happy Birthday to Me was one of the few ’80s slasher movies to not run afoul of the MPAA and censorship boards. Many film historians chalk that up to the director, J. Lee Thompson, who directed The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, and other classics, and his clout in Hollywood.
    • Though the practical for effects in Happy Birthday to Me are quite good – especially that horrifying gathering of corpses around the birthday cake – there’s a really weird scene in which a teacher demonstrates static electricity and an actual cartoon bolt of lightning comes of his finger. What was that about?
    • On a personal note, I was really happy that Amelia managed to survive the entire movie, because I developed a little bit of a crush on her. (My heart was at ease.)

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Happy Birthday to Me wasn’t particularly scary, but it wasn’t awful either. In fact, as far as slasher movies go, it was one of the more inventive of the genre. As friend Annie Gibson pointed out, it mirrors the plot of Scream very closely – the ending, in particular, as the real killer is first believed to be a victim, and the motivation for the murders stems from the parent of one of the kids sleeping with the killer’s father.

You know what goes well with pink? More pink.

You know what goes well with pink? More pink.

Best outfit: Kudos to Happy Birthday to Me for being one of the few horror movies with a tie-in accessory: Like the kids from Gryffindor House, the Top Ten wear their Crawford Academy colours with matching blue-and-purple striped scarves. If I had to single out one outfit for top honours, however, it would be Amelia’s pink and yellow sweater, which she wisely pairs with bright pink pants.

Best line: ‘Virginia, I’ve got a knife.’ – Rudi, breaking conversation rule #1 for first dates.

Best kill: There are some very inventive kills in Happy Birthday to Me, but it would be criminal to not give the gold medal to the shish kebab death. In reality, it seems like stabbing a kebab into someone’s mouth would probably not kill him, but I imagine people avoided Mediterranean street food after seeing this movie like people avoided showers after Psycho.

Unexpected cameo: There are a bunch of actors who you’ve probably seen in many a Canadian production, but best of all is Lisa Langlois (Amelia), who memorably played Patsy in another cult Canadian classic, Class of 1984! (That explains that crush.) Though a friend Katarina Gligorijevic (who works at Reel Canada) told me that her boss played Alfred.

Unexpected lesson learned: Don’t wear scarves or loose-dangling clothing while working with heavy machinery.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: The Crawford Academy Science Department.

Next up: Pin (1988).

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