HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME
“Six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see.”
Director: J. Lee Thompson / Writers: John Beaird, Timothy Bond, Peter Jobin & John C.W. Saxton / Cast: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker, Frances Hyland, Tracy Bregman, Lisa Langlois, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lenore Zann, David Eisner, Richard Rebiere, Lesleh Donaldson, Michel Rene LaBelle.
Body Count: 9
Dire-logue: “Murder…then suicide. Now they’ll all know just crazy little [SPOILER] really was!”
One of the first genre films I saw on the back of reading Vera Dika’s Games of Terror book, which provided a deep formula analysis of nine early slasher films. This Canadian entry into the burgeoning trend is a comparatively lush entry for its time. Using experienced director J. Lee Thompson and starring Glenn Ford, Happy Birthday to Me used these advantages as wisely as possible.
The result of these impressive involvements is a mixed bag. On the one had, this is one handsome devil of a horror film, with well crafted photography and characters drawn beyond the airhead regulars associated with sharp-object wielding killers. The Yin to this Yang is that it thinks above its station to some degree, attempting to spread its wings beyond the boundaries of what the audience most probably expected back in the day.
Melissa Sue Anderson, breaking free of her Little House on the Prairie character with veritable gusto, is Virginia Wainwright, member of the preppy Crawford Academy’s ‘Top Ten’, the creme of the crop in terms of popularity, although why some of these twats are held in such high esteem is a mystery the film chooses not to deal with.
Virginia is new to the school and has some issues regarding amnesia and the death of her mother in recent history, one of the plot elements that is gradually unfurled throughout events, which follow the unidentified killer doing away with members of the Crawford Top Ten in black-gloved giallo style. To Virginia and pals, they’ve just taken off for reasons unknown…
Ford is her shrink, trying to help her recall the deep-rooted trauma that plagues her and suss out the connection with the disappearances. Suffice to say, it’s all tied up together for the Scooby Doo reveal at the end.
There’s a lot of good stuff going on inbetween the more unfitting moments of the film; the killer – who appears for the first few murders dressed in a sinister black costume – executes the spoilt teens in some inventive ways, including death by motorcycle wheel, barbell weights and shish-kebab. Midway through proceedings we’re shown the killer’s face, which is a pretty damning indictment – but you just know that there are further tricks up the sleeves of this one…
Interplay between the teenage characters also provides an interesting distraction from the trivial prank and sex-centric shenanigans that occur in your basic Friday the 13th wannabe. The Crawford kids have got rich parents and therefore their attitudes to the welfare of their missing buddies is intoxicated with a competitive venom: they swap lovers and stab each other in the back (not literally, quite yet) and evoke little sympathy from the viewer. Even Virginia is a flawed heroine, almost as unlikeable as the others from time to time. Alas, not all of them appear to be in danger… Hmmm.
Okay, so Dika’s book gave away the identity of the killer before I’d seen the film so the twist wasn’t a shock to me. On the road to the finale, which is fated to occur on Virginia’s birthday, we learn about the death of her mother, which evidently plays a large part in why the killer is doing what he or she is. Flashback scenes thus far have shown us a grisly close-up of Virginia’s post-accident brain surgery (including an icky brain-swell) but now we find out why. The scene is a sad one as Virginia is alone at her own birthday party, social death for any child, for sure! This results in a we’ll-show-them reaction from her jar-tapping mother and, well, you’ll see for yourself…
The ending to it all is a great scene: Virginia gets her party and those who snubbed her before will definitely show up this time. Confusion follows before the naff reveal, which is laughably realised but credited with a nice little exposition from the killer before the final twist is played out. The motive will be familiar to those of us who saw a certain genre revival flick some 15 years later, where it was slightly more credibly realised, though not as much fun.
In spite of its high(er) budget, there are some curious oversights in Happy Birthday to Me‘s continuity: the car that falls into the river, the body found in the bath – clear one second, bloody the next, the extensive damage sustained by Greg’s car that miraculously disappears five seconds later… Whether any of this stuff is supposedly attributable to Virginia’s damaged memory is unclear.
The DVD release for this film has garnered much complaint for switching the gorgeous score for a cheesy disco number at the start. The Region 2 disc has the original soundtrack on the German audio selection but Syreeta’s haunting end credits song is intact on both versions.
Blurbs-of-interest: Lawrence Dane later appeared in Bride of Chucky; Lesleh Donaldson was also in fellow Canuck slashers Curtains and Funeral Home; both David Eisner and Lisa Langlois were in Phobia; Lenore Zann was in fellow Canuck slashers American Nightmare and Visiting Hours. Thompson directed 10 to Midnight two years after. I love the Canadian casting love-ins!