Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-02-27 03:19

Written by: John C.W. Saxton, Peter Jobin, and Timothy Bond
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

ďYou'd be proud of me now, mother. All the kids like me"

One of the strongest entries in the 80s splatter canon, Happy Birthday to Me is both quite simplistic and unusually sophisticated for a slasher. On the one hand, itís clearly driven by the petulant, juvenile pangs of youth and will resonate with anyone who was ever jilted on their birthday by a group of friends (hopefully it doesnít resonate too much because things will get awkward and bloody in a hurry). But on the other hand, this one sets itself apart from its contemporaries by spinning one hell of a yarn around this concept, as itís lined with enough twists and turns that would even make giallo masters blush. In many ways, Happy Birthday to Me is a perfect stopgap between that genre and the standard issue American body count flick; it really canít be claimed as either, which makes it all the more intriguing.

A group of tight-knit friends who refer to themselves as the ďTop TenĒ of Crawford Academy have found themselves on the wrong end of a maniacís killing spree. As the bodies pile up, Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson) begins to recall her traumatic past, particularly the violent death of her mother four years earlier. With the help of the doctor (Glenn Ford) who subjected her to an experimental brain operation, Virginia continues to unravel her memories; however, it may come at the cost of unraveling her sanity as well.

ďCleverĒ isnít a word often associated with slasher movies, particularly the ones released in the immediate wake of Friday the 13th. Happy Birthday to Me earns that descriptor, though, as it weaves a wildly entertaining story that has enough plot for multiple slashers. This isnít quite a simplistic set-Ďem-up-and-knock-Ďem down splatter-fest, nor is it quite a straightforward whodunit since it takes liberties with the formula, a fact thatís observable right out of the gate. While it opens with an obligatory kill sequence, it dangles the possibility that the killerís first victim (minor scream queen Lesleh Donaldson) might escape her fate. From there, it continues to cleverly toy with its audience by dangling numerous red herrings and possible motivations.

That said, it sort of does come off as the cinematic equivalent of ďThe Boy Who Cried WolfĒ for a while since it becomes easy to write off every ďrevealĒ as yet another gag. To its credit, Happy Birthday to Me doesnít back down from the approach, and itís better off for it since its loony climax is among the best of all the 80s slashers. Just when it looks like itís tipped its hand, it turns out itís hiding three or four cards up its ass, a tactic that results in a highly ludicrous but brazenly awesome ending. By the time its credits have rolled, Happy Birthday to Me has become a multi-layered cake flavored with Agatha Christie, gialli, Scooby Doo, and even a little film noir (Fordís presence seems like a subtle nod to that genre, where he was a reliable staple). It actually beats April Foolís Day at its own game and did so five years earlier to boot.

Happy Birthday to Me isnít as overtly stylish as most giallo films, but itís confidently helmed by J. Lee Thompson, whose interesting career trajectory took him from Cape Fear to a slew of Charles Bronson flicks. His direction brings a certain professionalism to the film, but the production ultimately feels guided by John Dunning and Andre Link, the producing duo that also gifted us with My Bloody Valentine. This effort isnít quite as memorable as their excursion to the Hanniger mines, but it has the same sort of vibe, even if it isnít as overtly Canadian (instead, thereís a distinct waspy New England atmosphere to this one). Like My Bloody Valentine, thereís a certain genuine quality to the group of friends; while Iím not so sure any of them aspire to the heights of Hollis and company, itís an affable bunch, filled with the requisite joksters and one weirdo (who of course is the filmís first suspect). When someone like Donaldson serves as opening sequence fodder, you know that cast is set to be pretty solid, and Anderson is a compelling lead who brings the right mix of vulnerability and mystery as the film also builds her up to be an obvious suspect. Sheís surrounded by a well-rounded group that includes Meatballs alums Matt Craven and Jack Blum as well as Lenore Zann and Lisa Langolis, both of whom featured in other 80s horror efforts.

The film can also count itself among the slasher class of 1981, a crop of flicks that has since become infamous due to so many of its number being butchered by the MPAA. After Sean Cunningham and Paramount slipped Friday the 13th by the goalie, the ratings board sharpened its hatchets for its successors (its Canadian brethren was a famous victim of this rampage). Happy Birthday to Me managed to get away with more than most during this era, though the MPAAís disdain for the actual act of murder is apparent, as many of the actual kills feel truncated in the moment. Thompson and company were apparently free to dwell on the grisly aftermath, which features some of the best gore effects work of the era. Most noteworthy is the bevy of massacred and mutilated corpses that pile up and present themselves for the most fucked up dinner table scene this side of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Many of them fall prey to creative methods of dispatch, too; the shish kabob impalement is probably the most famous of the bunch, but itís actually not the most cringe-inducing bit in the film (that honor would go to a weight-lifting sequence that feels brutal despite not showing much).

Few slashers earn a whole lot of praise based on their stories, but Happy Birthday to Me is both intriguing and admirably unhinged; it is a riotously absurd piece of work that only gets sillier as it degenerates into a series of twists and reveals. Best of all, it comes without a hint of irony or self-awareness, so itís not only ludicrous but also headstrong to boot. It even survives a typically toxic mix of a long runtime (111 minutes) and few deaths (six, all told), a formula that would usually sink a slasher. Since itís one of the more popular 80s offerings, itís no surprise that it found its way to DVD pretty quickly, as Columbia released it back in 2004; unfortunately, it did so with an altered soundtrack that wasnít corrected until Anchor Bay re-released the film about five years later. The film recently made its way to Blu-ray as part of a two pack alongside the original When a Stranger Calls, and it apparently features the correct soundtrack as well. Regardless of your preferred flavor, Happy Birthday to Me is a must-have for slasher enthusiasts; not only does it have its cake, but it also carves it up, smears it into your face, then eats it too. Buy it!

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