What’s not to love about 1981’s Happy Birthday To Me? It really is the slasher bees knees. It is the undeniable love child of Scooby Doo and Friday The 13th. The epitome of early ’80s slasher movie fun. OK, it has the running time of an unabridged adaptation of War and Peace (clocking in at a whopping 110 minutes), but that just means there’s more stalk ‘n’ slash goodness to go around.
At face value, you’d be forgiven for expecting the obvious. By the time this was released we’d already had Graduation Day, My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, Friday the 13th, et al; so what was left to terrorize in terms of notable calendar dates? Well hey; everyone has a birthday, right? Whereas the majority of those aforementioned titles were more or less clones of the buzzing slasher genre’s former alumni, Happy Birthday To Me stands apart, simply because it has enough wit and, quite frankly, intelligence to display self recognition. But make no mistake, this is no parody.
Happy Birthday To Me starts by showing a young girl out on the streets at night (anyone who has seen one of these films knows already that this is not a good thing). We learn that the young girl is on her way to the local pub to meet with the other members of the “Top Ten”; a group of wealthy and beautiful seniors at the Crawford Academy. It doesn’t take long before we see the young girl attacked in her own car. She plays dead long enough to get away only to run into someone that she knows. There is no rescue given to the young girl however, we see a straight razor in the person’s hand and soon a slit is made across the young girl’s throat.
So, who would want to murder a member of the prestigious Crawford Top Ten? Is it the awkward nerd nursing a broken heart, the prudish principal punishing youthful indifference, the overly-nice widowed father with a cloudy past, the overzealous doctor determined to protect his new medical technique, or could it be our humble protagonist Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson) all along?
Happy Birthday To Me is a whodunit in the classic And Then There Were None mold injected with a heaping helping of gore and an atypical mostly male victim roster. As the suspects dwindle it becomes increasingly likely but thanks to one of the most implausible twists in horror history, you haven’t a chance of guessing the jaw-dropping, groan inducing dilly of a finale.
Split ends not withstanding, Melissa Sue Anderson is terrific as the character who could be a final-girl or could be the film’s killer. She was previously (and probably still is) best known for her role on the bitter-sweet TV show Little House On The Prairie. In the film’s press notes, Anderson jokes that “… it was almost a relief to be chased by a berserk killer.” Curiously, the same notes play down the slasher movie aspects (i.e. the whole film) by describing it as a “psychological mystery-shocker”. Perhaps, Columbia – the major studio that picked it up for distribution – were a little embarrassed by it (in the same way that Paramount quickly tried to distance itself from the cash cow that was the Friday The 13th franchise whilst still wringing as much money as they could out of it). Of course, trying to promote HBTM as a serious thriller is downright misleading (and doesn’t do its zany charms any justice).
Sporting an impressive pedigree that includes director J.Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear) and co-staring legendary actor Glenn Ford, HBTM is a classy affair when compared to the backyard titles of the era. But don’t let the high production values and professional presentation fool you. Producers John Dunning and Andre Link are also responsible for the classic MPAA baiting slashathon My Bloody Valentine and have a clear understanding of what ticket buyers were paying to see circa 1981. Namely, eye popping, show stopping murders performed with tools raging from the standard hunting knife to the now infamous shish kabob skewer that dominated the theatrical poster.
Any way you slice this birthday cake you certainly get an excellent piece of ’80s style horror. HBTM is now considered a verifiable classic to gore-hounds. Many of the genre’s rules/cliches that we now take for granted were forged by this opus and no real slasher fan should exclude this well wrapped gift from their collection. Whether you buy the outlandishness of the final reveal or not, the atmospheric and delightfully grotesque party scene is one for the ages.
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