“Happy Birthday to Me” (1981)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Starring: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Tracey E. Bregman
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Running Time: 111 min.
Synopsis: Teens at a prep school are being killed off one by one that center around one of the teens’ birthday.
Happy Birthday to Me is one of those 80’s slasher films that came out at the peak of those films and is another horror film that centers on a holiday or special event. The film is not the best pick out of the slasher bunch of that era, but it’s not the worst. It’s a good film with great suspense and plenty of twists and turns throughout the film.
The movie is about a group of prep school students in Canada who start to get killed off one by one. Everyone in the group are wondering, who’s next and they are also wondering, could one of them be the killer? One of the students in the group, Ginny, played by Melissa Sue Anderson (Little House on the Prairie), is new to the group, but not new to the town. Years ago she was in a car accident that killed her mother and almost killed her on her birthday. She continues to have flashbacks of the event throughout the movie as her psychiatrist, played by Glenn Ford (Blackboard Jungle, Superman), tries to help her remember.
Happy Birthday to Me is a whodunit and the viewer is trying to figure out which one of the students is the killer. There are some great twists in the film that were different from other slasher films at the time, which made the film stand out more than others.
SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know the interesting twist of the film, please continue reading onto the next paragraph. Happy Birthday to Me took a different route and made the protagonist (Ginny) the antagonist when she is revealed as the killer. This is something no other slasher film did at the time. That’s like if Laurie Strobe was the killer in Halloween. Then the film throws you another curve ball and it turns out that Ginny is not the killer after all and it’s her best friend dressed like her and wearing a mask in her likeness. It’s an interesting twist, but it’s a little farfetched with the best friend being able to make a prefect mask of her. What is this, Mission: Impossible?
There are some great killing scenes that happen during the film. One has a guy’s winter scarf get caught in the wheel of his motorcycle when he’s fixing it and his face gets splatter in the motor. Another has a guy lifting weights and his weights end up crushing him, thanks to the killer. Also, there’s the famous scene where a guy gets a shish kebab shoved down his throat. This killing scene happens to be the cover art to the poster, which was controversial at the time.
What I liked about the film were the suspenseful scenes that made you jump out of your seat at times. They also did a good job with the fake scare, where you think something is going to happen, but doesn’t. Then when the real scare comes you’re caught off guard, because you’re thinking you’ll be faked again. There were a few things I thought could have been better, which were the development of some of the characters. Anderson was great in her role, but other supporting characters were uninteresting or just needed more added to them. Most of focus was on Anderson, which is understandable, because she is the lead, but her friends seem like just background players and scenes with them seem to be rushed. So, when they finally get killed off, you don’t really care if they live or die.
John Dunning the producer of the film also released, in the same year as this film, another holiday themed horror flick, My Bloody Valentine. Also, legendary director, J. Lee Thompson, who made such classic films like The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear, directed Happy Birthday to Me. He also directed two Planet of the Ape films, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
The film was just re-released on DVD recently. The first release of it had a different score during the opening credits and not the original. The new DVD release from Anchor Bay has the original score, plus the original controversial poster art on the cover. Happy Birthday to Me is a good slasher film from that time and if you haven’t seen it all ready it’s definitely worth watching.