Sunday, May 31, 2020

‘Happy Birthday to Me’ (1981) film review

Somehow I missed Happy Birthday to Me when it opened in theaters on May 15th 1981. Which seems odd in retrospect, since I used to go to the movies about twice a week back then and was well aware of the film due to Columbia Pictures’ effective marketing campaign famous for that lurid poster art of a dude getting impaled by a shish-kebab.

Maybe it was the booming social life I had at the time. Maybe I was just burned out on the genre (there was literally a new slasher film in the theater every week back then). Or maybe the previews showing the meathead getting offed on the bench press hit too close to home since I had just suffered a real life bench press accident of my own (ouch!).

But whatever the reason, I managed to miss the theatrical run of Happy Birthday to Me, even though it’s a film I really wanted to see. Then came the disastrous home video release of the movie where they could not get the copyright for the film’s score and songs so they stripped out the soundtrack and imposed a cheesy (and dreadful) score upon the movie. So as a movie purist and a film music fan, that was an absolute deal breaker. No way would I view and listen to such an abomination.

Then, at long last, the film was restored to its original form and soundtrack, so I could finally see the movie I had been missing out on over all these years.

Happy Birthday to Me has garnered a reputation as being a cut above (no pun intended) its early 80s slasher brethren. This is due to three reasons. The budget. The director. And the cast.

The movie’s budget of 3.5 million (just under 10 million on 2020 dollars) is three to four times that of a typical slasher movie of the time. As an example, Friday the 13th Part II which had opened in theaters just two weeks earlier, had a paltry budget of 1.2 million and the original Friday the 13th was $550,000.

Happy Birthday to Me really scored with its director. Veteran director J. Lee Thompson was an old school Hollywood veteran whose credits include The Guns of Navarone (1961), Cape Fear (1962), and Mackenna’s Gold (1969). 

Taking the supporting role is another old school Hollywood hand, Glen Ford, a highly regarded actor at the time. And in the lead, playing against typecast, was Melissa Sue Anderson, who was well known for her starring role in the long running hit TV series Little House on the Prairie.

All of this—the budget, the director, the casting—pays off because it can all be seen right there on the screen. Happy Birthday to Me is a well-directed, slickly produced, and for the most part, a very well-acted piece of early 80s cinema.

Melissa Sue Anderson plays Virginia "Ginny" Wainwright, a pretty girl at an exclusive high school academy where she hangs out with a cast of characters that could be straight out of any other genre movie of the day.

But what makes this movie different is Ginny herself. There is a dark mystery in her recent past, a tragic accident where she lost her mother, and much of her memory.

Glen Ford is her psychiatrist and mentor who is helping her deal with the memory loss and cope with this tragedy.

Meanwhile, Ginny’s friends begin to disappear one by one.

Truth be told, the murders looked far more creative and gratuitous in the trailer and TV spots than they are in the movie itself. Happy Birthday to Me is more straight horror film mystery thriller than a slasher movie. It does not possess the lurid thrills of say, Friday the 13th Part II.

But still, this is a good movie. And I’ll go a step further. This is a really good movie that occasionally flirts with greatness, especially during the absolutely bat shit crazy insane final act.

Melissa Sue Anderson commands the camera. She makes you want to watch her and learn more about what is going on inside her. Ford is solid and lends some gravitas to the film. And that now legendary restored score by Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin drenches the proceedings with great tension and atmosphere.

Bottom line: *** (out of four)

A real horror gem from the early 80s slasher wave featuring a strong performance from Melissa Sue Anderson and a great musical score.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

I like Taylor Swift

The above title is a reference to a Saturday Night Live skit where a group of adults on the dance floor come to the realization that, “Oh my God. I like Taylor Swift!”

Yes I do. I like Taylor Swift.

As a matter of fact, her new Lover album? I love it. I really do. Every track. From start to finish.

It’s not that I didn’t like Taylor Swift before. I was, to quote a phrase from the catchy, irresistibly fun track “I Forgot That You Existed”, I was just indifferent.

Truth be told, I just never gave her a chance. 

Mostly because for several years, between Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Cher Lloyd, Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, Elle Goulding, and many others, my pop music cue was pretty maxed out.

But then, many of the above mentioned artists began to pull back on producing new material, and as the number of new releases from my favorite pop artists dropped off, there was a deep void to fill on my classic iPod (yes! I still use one. I prefer to own my music. Not rely on a strong WiFi signal in order to freaking be able to listen to a song I want to hear and hear now).

Anyway, enter the spring 2020 quarantine.

Now I really needed some new pop music to get me excited and focused for my new isolation training (pull-ups and push-up in the garage and sprints out in the street in front of my house).

One night on television there was a virtual concert organized by Lady Gaga, packed with an all-star line-up of A-list performers, including Taylor Swift.

When Taylor was up, it was just her at home, sitting at the piano. She performed “Soon You’ll Get Better” and all I remember is standing there in front of the TV, feeling every ounce of the heart-breaking sadness of the song, and thinking to myself afterward, “I had no idea she was that good.”

The performance blew me away. Truly, it was magical.

Later that night I hurried off to Amazon and YouTube to find out that the track was from her recent Lover album, and as I sampled each track on the record, I once again said to myself, “My God, I had no idea she was this good!”

It was like discovering a new gold mine that was actually sitting right there in front of you for years.

A few weeks later ABC aired an hour of footage from a pre-Covid concert she did in Paris. And you bet that if there ever are real live concerts again and I get the chance to see her live, I’ll be dragging my sorry old ass to a Taylor swift concert.

I’ve been listening to Lover non-stop during my isolation garage training as well as my conditioning at the field, and it has super-charged my workouts like a euphoric spike of giddy adrenaline straight into the heart. My favorite tracks on the album include the rousing “Cruel Summer”, the hypnotic “Archer”, the insanely energetic ‘The Man”, the sentimental “Cornelia Street” and the melancholy story song "Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince", which I’ve envisioned a detailed music video to in my mind.

I learned a lot about myself during this quarantine. I learned that I wasted a lot of time before. I learned to be more productive. I learned I really don’t need the gym to train properly.

And I learned that I like Taylor Swift.

I really, really do.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

'Fantastic Stories: Season 2', now available

"Fantastic Stories: Season 2" is now available on Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, and in a glorious and glossy 6 x 9 paperback edition.

From the back cover:

Navy fighter pilot Brin Fallon is transported back in time to WWII Europe in “Super Hornet 1942”.

A cult space opera TV series becomes real life for super fan Alex Bell in “Starfighter”.

A greedy oil executive gets a lesson about life and love in “The Green Girl”.

In a dystopian, divided America, an Olympic track star must run for her life in “The Pledge”.

At an ancient burial site an archaeologist makes a horrific discovery in “The Skeleton Ring”.

A scientist becomes his own test subject for a revolutionary anti-aging compound in “The Mesomorph”.

Experience these riveting, page-turning tales of epic imagination in “Fantastic Stories: Season 2”, a collection of six sensational stories of suspense, action, science fiction, and horror from James J. Caterino, the author of “Watch the Skies” and “The Last Neanderthal”.

Monday, May 18, 2020

'The Skeleton Ring'

"The Skeleton Ring" is now available in Kindle and on Kindle Unlimited.

Sharon is an archaeologist who discovers an ancient Native American burial site. But one of the remains does not belong there, a skeleton from the recent past. Sharon is mesmerized by the skeleton and drawn toward a ring on the decayed corpse. She takes the ring, puts it on her own finger, and it changes her.

She begins to have visions of a past event, a violent, traumatic attack. The visions and the power of the skeleton ring take over her life. Her only way to stop it is to solve the dark mystery behind it all, no matter how dangerous and deadly it may become.

“The Skeleton Ring” is a taut, spooky excursion into supernatural horror from James J. Caterino, the author of “The Mesomorph”, “The Green Girl”, and “Super Hornet 1942”.