Happy Birthday (2023) Movie Review – Ouch!
A young student comes to grips with her gruesome past when her college friends take her to a "haunted" house on the edge of town. The coeds find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time as an escaped killer is holed up in the house.
What do you get when you put together a talented and popular social media personality with a director who is way out of their depth and a film making crew that doesn’t know their arses from a hole in the ground? Why, you get slasher horror Happy Birthday from 2023, of course.
Happy Birthday is an awful horror movie with literally one thing going for it and that is the performance of Maddie Henderson. I probably don’t need to say this because I imagine you can probably recognise the smell already. But you can find this movie on Tubi. For those of you who don’t know, I spent a whole month covering low budget horror movies on Tubi. Some were okay, one was great, the rest were dog shit.
Despite how bad some of them were and despite how bad some of the horror I have watched lately has been. I actually think Happy Birthday might be at the bottom of the pile. I mean, I can definitely hear its muffled groans coming from under there along with those of The Lurking Fear, Caviar and #Float. Happy Birthday is the horror movie equivalent of catching your belt loop on a door handle. It’s annoying and frustrating in the moment but you look back on it and laugh at how much it pissed you off. Let’s take a look at just why it is so bad.
Generic Slasher Stuff Happens
Happy Birthday’s plot is one that you have seen a million times before. And, to be fair, not really something that the movie deserves a whole bunch of criticism for. I mean, Slashers haven’t been original for a very long time.
A young woman with a troubled past heads out to a vacant home on the edge of town with her friends. Story flashbacks hint that something traumatic took place involving the woman and her family. The friends hang out at the house, they share a box of beers and some moonshine. One of them takes a shit on, what looks like, the deck of the house. Most of the characters chain smoke. A killer comes along and things take a turn for the worse for them. The end.
It’s the same old slasher plot you have seen hundreds of times before just with a few twists and tweaks. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Happy Birthday borrows heavily from Rob Zombie’s reboot of Halloween in story structure and pacing. It feels too similar to be simple coincidence. That’s where the comparisons to actually competent horror movies will end. It’s all downhill from here.
Poor in Every Way
This is one of those rare examples of a movie that fails on nearly every level. Aside from its generic and oh so tired plot. It relentlessly throws genre cliche after genre cliche at the viewer. Unconcerned as to whether they make for a compelling story or not. We have the generic psychiatric ward; the patient with a violent past; the short tempered psychiatrist; the clueless friend who likes a drink; the deep and complex main girl; the main girl’s love interest. It is just so damn generic. That’s really not the main problem with Happy Birthday, though. It’s everything else; it is just so poorly made.
Scenes flit around confusingly from one location to the next and from the past to the present. Flashbacks are poorly transitioned, denoted by the sudden switch to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio from its typical 16:9. Outside of a few characters, acting is wooden and awkward. Editing is some of the worst I have ever seen in horror. Sound production hisses horribly and echos throughout. Music is horrendously loud and incredibly repetitive. Effects work is genuinely pathetic. The film is littered with pointless, awkward, sex scenes and characters stripped to their bras for minor titillation. And the story is mundane and boring. The script is, also, shockingly bad, bordering on the remedial at times. How did three writers manage to cough up something so horrendous? Were they each writing in a different language and then translating it like a game of Chinese Whispers?
I am struggling to find anything positive to say about the movie. I will point out that, early on, some of the cinematography is fairly nice. With a decent amount of creativity in shots and some interesting framing. It doesn’t take very long for that to evaporate, though. I can only assume the additional shot setups were taking too much time so they switched to something more simple.
Leaps of Logic and Utter Silliness
There are gross leaps of logic needed to buy into the events that take place in Happy Birthday. This is common in horror but this movie takes it to a different level. It sort of makes a mockery of the viewer’s intelligence. We are expected to believe that a certain character would not speak up about her experience with the house they visit. That psychiatric hospitals will house kids that happen to simply be a tiny bit troubled. And that dangerous patients would be given the opportunity to cause mayhem due to the place having only three members of staff. It is silly and it goes on throughout the movie. It is just one logic leap after another.
I also feel like I have to point out one scene in particular for how hilariously bad it was. The characters are having a chat while driving down the road. All the while a green screen backdrop continuously loops in the background while a completely different scene loops on the other side. It is so utterly poor and represents complete incompetence on the part of the filmmakers. The images glitch against their containers and parts of the character’s faces are cut off. I have never seen anything this bad in horror outside of movies like Birdemic.
Direction is Seriously Lacking
Direction is a major problem in this movie. I can only imagine that Chris Helton is very inexperienced with full feature length movies. The continuity between shots is a complete mess with character’s positions switching, hair moving to different sides, character’s posture changing and much more. At certain points, characters run from one location directly into another with nothing to illustrate the journey. Not a big issue when it is inconsequential but when someone is running from a maniacal killer it both looks stupid and robs the movie of tension. Shot transitions are abrupt and jarring. Some of the framing is incomprehensible. Actors often seem to be poorly informed on their cues and there’s a distinctly high school drama class feeling to everything.
The pacing here is really bad with certain sequences dragging tremendously and a whole bunch of needless padding. On top of that. there is a serious lack of care throughout. You can actually hear the director speak in at least one scene. You hear him say to actor Maddie Henderson to “Pull your hair back out of your face”. I didn’t hear that on headphones either, that was on my TV at a normal volume. Incredibly sloppy. Helton’s decision to use different aspect ratios for flashback scenes is a bizarre one. The transitions feel abrupt, amateur and very messy. There are far more problems than this but I am trying to keep this short.
Why So Much Damn Smoking?
Helton’s insistence on having characters smoking all the damn time makes for a ton of messy shot variation. With cigarettes changing hands or disappearing completely out of frame. I am not at all sure why certain characters smoke so much. It adds nothing to the story at all and makes little sense in the grander scheme of things. Creating its own lingering series of issues with regards to continuity. It’s constant, as well. Bernadette gets up in the morning and lights up. She gets out of the shower and lights a cigarette. She takes a shit and has a smoke. This chick must stink.
I think Helton deserves criticism for presenting a well known TikTok star with a, likely, young following as being a chain smoker as well. It feels irresponsible. Helton, apparently, works in movie financing. I can’t help but feel he got a little help off of a tobacco company to fund this movie. Happy Birthday is indulgent in its depiction of tobacco addiction.
One Great Performance
The only thing this movie has going for it is the performance of Maddie Henderson. She does a genuinely great job. Turning Bernadette into a character who feels both believable and authentic. Considering her lack of acting experience; it’s impossible not to notice just how far above the rest of the cast she seems. She has confident line delivery, decent elocution, and a great ability to reflect emotion. She feels experienced beyond what her resume suggests, as well.
I really couldn’t help but feel like she is the only person involved in the movie that took their job seriously. She understood her character and it shows. Despite how much I disliked this movie, I think she has a bright acting future. She somehow manages to make chicken salad out of chicken shit continuously.
Generally Mixed Acting
The rest of the acting is something of a mixed bag. Kim Sandwich, as Darby, does a pretty good job. Seemingly enjoying her role and having fun. Matthew Scharff seems a little timid in his delivery but, again, much of this is down to the bland script. His character is very poorly written and a bit simpering. He is okay, though, and has potential.
Sky Crystal, as Nick, is “waving back to someone who wasn’t actually waving at you” levels of awkward. Feeling extremely uncomfortable throughout. He has an almost nervous delivery. Rosie Koocher never escapes past generic blonde girl with no personality but she is confident enough which is good. Tim Schmidt gave me serious rent-a-Randy-Quaid vibes. Tommy Hoesley seemingly gets his character and feels comfortable on screen. There are hints of Angel Pean being a competent actor, as well. With her character feeling a little more well fleshed out than her friends. But, overall, it’s just a really mixed bag. Each and every actor is let down tremendously by the poor direction and script.
Final Thoughts and Score
Happy Birthday is a repetitive and poorly made slasher movie. Wasting the talents of its lead actor Maddie Henderson. Chris Helton’s lacklustre direction and the movie’s awful script drag the viewer down a pit of poor film making. Leading them through an exhibition of technical errors, awful effects, substandard story telling and bad writing. This is a movie carelessly made by an inexperienced crew that was completely out of its depth. Its plot is cliched but that is the least of its issues. Happy Birthday is simply a very bad horror movie with a lot of problems.