Happy Birthday to Me
After the breakout success of the independent Halloween and the studio pickup Friday the 13th, the major studios decided to throw their hands into the slasher ring. Why pay for milk when you can get it directly from the cow? So in 1980-81 came a number of respectable and legitimate slashers, the most popular of which were De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me. A Canadian runaway production like other early-eighties slashers: My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night and Terror Train, Happy Birthday to Me had the benefit of big studio backing and a larger budget. Although not a huge hit in theaters, its stature has slowly grown on video, thanks dually to campy cover art and the lurid promise of a truly bizarre ending. It has been a long time coming to DVD, but last fall Columbia finally decided to mine their vaults and restore this slasher favorite. Let's cut the cake on this new release.
Weird things have been happening to Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson). She attends the prestigious prep school, Crawford Academy, has a loving father (Lawrence Dane) and a number of zany friends. Her friends are so close, in fact, that they have all been billed the “Top Ten” of the academy. But weird things start happening when members of the “Top Ten” begin disappearing. One gets stabbed with a shish kabob skewer, another gets his head grinded on a motorcycle tire, and someone even gets killed by weightlifting (so much for fitness!). The bizarre thing is though, is that Virginia was present at many of these murders, or at least she thinks she was.
Virginia was a victim of a fatal accident as a child (as most Final Girls are), and the repercussions of the act have made her mentally unstable. In order to save her, Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) had to attempt a radical form of brain surgery never before used. Although it seemed to work fine initially, the more Virginia starts remembering from her past, the more she seems to forget about the present. Was she responsible for the murders of the “Top Ten”, or are the deathly sightings merely nightmares in a damaged brain? Why can’t she remember anything?
Given the title of the film, Virginia’s birthday also plays a part in the finale, but it is likely the most perverse birthday you will ever see. At the party candles are blown, people murdered and secrets finally revealed in a finale that not even the shrewdest of slasher fans will see coming.
Happy Birthday to Me is a true rarity in the slasher genre, a classy and elaborate production by a number of aged professionals. Slashers are generally known for their amateur crews and equally amateur production values, but Happy Birthday to Me is very much the opposite. Directed by a 65-year-old J. Lee Thompson, the film possesses a vintage sensibility. Thompson was renowned in the 50s and 60s for his accomplished work in the studio system, namely the original Cape Fear and his Oscar-nominated The Guns of Navarone, and Happy Birthday to Me very much has that same aged sophistication. Scenes usually begin with a long and slow craning shot, and end with a soft fade out over fire or other aesthetic images. Camera movements are smooth, the lighting elaborate. Everything has a classical Hollywood feel, as if this is what a slasher film with Sandra Dee would have looked like circa 1959.
Not only are there veterans behind the camera, but the actors also come from a classically trained background. Glenn Ford, with starring roles in 50s classics like Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, is an actor plucked from the same era as Thompson himself. To the doctor role Ford adds a mannered sophistication often missing from slasher films of the time. Even the Final Girl, who is usually an unknown, is played by child star Melissa Sue Anderson. Anderson, despite only being 18 when the film was released, had already been acting 10 years and had made a name for herself as Mary Ingalls on the long-running Little House on the Prairie. She’s classy in Birthday, and even has a throwback line to the 50s with her wonderfully cheesy “I love Gary Cooper!” line. So like Thompson, actors like Glenn and Anderson add a veteran elegance to what are typically amateurish roles. Even the inexperienced actors play the film as if it were a high class stage production, with melodramatic and stagy delivery, particularly in the flashbacks with Virginia’s mother.
Although the marketing was based all around the murders, Thompson is very much focused on the story, which has a complexity similar to the tightly knit film noirs that Thompson was accustomed to. With elaborate flashbacks, family melodrama and a gift-wrapped finale, the film is vintage all the way, and the sophistication is its virtue. The story, acting and direction is all top notch, and on those respects the film stands in the upper echelons of the slasher genre. It is quite obvious the film was butchered by the MPAA upon release, but even some good gore bits shine through. The thing is though, that given the class of the entire film, low-rent gore sort of takes away from the classical feel of it all.
Now the ending, which the film has basically become infamous for, is gleefully out there. In a genre of implausible endings, this may just be the most implausible, but damned if it isn’t a fine slice of fun. If the entire film has a vintage sensibility, then this ending is remnant of an old Scooby Doo episode. It’s a zoo full of red herrings, as the film sets up each character as a suspect, and even when the camera shows the murderer, one still can’t trust what they’ve seen. Happy Birthday to Me is one of the better made slasher films of its time, and definitely one of the most enjoyable. It is a great little mystery yarn with perfectly absurd ending. They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.
Given that the film had a professional director and a studio budget, it is no surprise that this transfer looks very solid. Contrast is nice, as the many dark night scenes still possess a nice depth to them. The elaborate use of red and blue filters makes for a vibrant picture, and the transfer really brings out the colors. There is surprisingly little grain, and the transfer is exceptionally clean. The awful new cover markets the film as if it were new, and in many ways this 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer looks it. Nice job, Columbia.
The film is presented in a cleaned up but still generic mono track. More interesting though, is the perturbing music changes made during a few portions of the film. Originally, the beginning was orchestrated by Lance (Motel Hell) Rubin, but in this version a cheesy and out of place 80s pop song, “Out of the Blue” is put in its place. Given how J. Lee Thompson was shooting for vintage class, the loss of the traditional orchestral score for bad synth pop really throws the film off-kilter. “Out of the Blue” then makes its appearance again during the school dance, where it again looks out of place. Thankfully the mysterious end credit ballad by Syreeta is still in tact, but the musical changes are quite puzzling. Columbia has been known for their willingness to substitute new music instead of paying for clearance rights like with Dawson’s Creek (which even lost its theme song by Season 3), but considering the replaced audio was merely orchestral music, the change is puzzling. Wes Ray supposes in his DVD Drive-In review that perhaps it was merely an alternate cut of the film, but the changes are anyone’s guess. Still, the changes are totally out of place and distracting, but small enough to overlook, given the merits of the film.
There are no supplements other than trailers for the similarly themed I Know What You Did Last Summer, Identity and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Since there are no other supplements, I’ll take this opportunity to lambaste the truly awful cover art used for the film. We’ve been through this debate before with Paramount, when they severely altered the covers of the latter installments in their Friday the 13th franchise, but the changes on Happy Birthday to Me are much worse. The cover, featuring a girl with glowing yellow eyes standing in front of a lighting-stricken haunted house, has absolutely nothing to do with the film other than the fact that there is a knife, a girl and a cake in Happy Birthday to Me. The model for the cover isn’t even in the film, not to mention that there is no haunted house nor is there any supernatural possession. The original poster and video art (which Columbia has included as an apologetic insert) was a great shot of the shish kabob skewer going into a screaming man’s mouth, and was likely the draw for many first-time watchers. All that is lost with the new cover, and it is tough to think of anyone who would pick this film up sight unseen based on the cover. Please, Columbia, stick with the originals.
Happy Birthday to Me is a rarity of the slasher genre, a sophisticated studio film made by established veterans with a story that more than holds its weight with the bizarre murder sequences. The video quality is excellent, although a few musical changes in the audio track make the presentation a mixed bag. There are no extras, but slasher fans and fans of vintage horror should both be equally satisfied by this film. It is definitely a Birthday worth having.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - C
Supplements - D
Is it just me, or are the pics on the back of the box not in the movie?
It's just you, but they certainly chose the least memorable screen caps for inclusion. Even the Gaffer credit would have been more interesting.
No, I'm pretty sure that the picture of Anne on the back isnt in the movie because shes not wearing that either times she is killed.
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