Happy Birthday to Me
Review Date: October 13, 2009
Released by: Anchor Bay
Release date: 9/13/2009
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
is a great movie. A really classy, professional and yet still twisted as all hell slasher – how many of those have you seen from a big studio? Anyway, despite the quality, the film has endured more for peripheral reasons. First is the cover artwork. The original poster treads a fine line between campy and iconic, with a shish kabob being shoved down a teen’s throat with a promise of “six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see.” There’s also one of those really bad disclaimers about the ending being too shocking and all that. Funny stuff, and something that has always endured with the film. Then, when Columbia finally released it on DVD, we again got an infamous cover, but this of a different kind. The new cover is hilarity. It’s inexplicable. It has absolutely nothing to do with the film; it’s like one of those clichéd Hollywood big shot decisions, where they try and sell exploitables without even seeing the product. There’s a scantly clad woman with glowing orange eyes holding a knifed cake in front of a lightning struck castle. If one of the Cat People had a birthday at Dracula’s mansion, then maybe we’d be getting close to relevant, but as is the cover is certainly the biggest abomination in the history of the medium.
There was another problem with Columbia’s DVD, though. The score was all wrong. There was this incredibly cheesy “Out of the Blue” disco tune in place of the traditional score, and even all the strings were completely different. Fans balked at both the cover and the canned score, but Columbia did not listen. Five candles later, though, and Anchor Bay is now celebrating this most infamous of slasher birthday’s with the original score intact. Are they really that different? How about the audio? Any supplemental presents worth opening? Let’s carve up this fine, old-Hollywood cake.
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 bore witness to a fatal accident as a child (as most Final Girls do), and the repercussions of said 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.
|Deluxe DVD||Old DVD|
These days I really am wasting time doing head to head screenshot comparisons. I spent the better part of an hour syncing up shots for my review of Stepfather 2
and then it turned out the transfers between Miramax and Synapse were identical. A lark, I thought. Then I do the same for this release, but sure enough, Anchor Bay used the exact same source as the original Columbia disc. Granted, there is a slight modification with the framing – the Columbia disc was windowboxed on all sides, whereas the Anchor Bay disc is now in the proper 1.85:1 matting, with bars on the top and bottom. The top and bottom mattes are the same on the old disc, but the sides were also cropped on the Columbia disc, making the ratio an improper 1.78:1. The whole Columbia frame was a line higher, too. It’s not a huge difference, but I’ve always been one to embrace the adage that more is merrier, so opening up more usable frame space makes Anchor Bay’s the superior of the two discs. Especially considering the film was displayed theatrically in 1.85:1, Anchor Bay’s is the more true transfer.
|Deluxe DVD||Old DVD|
That said, either disc you get you’re going to be getting a vibrant, clean and detailed transfer. Even if the transfer is five years old, it still looks very, very good. The cinematography was shot by a pro and the film being part of a big studio means that professional image was probably preserved in a professional facility. I think if the transfer were to be redone today it would look more like the recent Friday the 13th
deluxe editions, with sharper edges, better contrast and a more orange skin hue. Looking at the untouched softness to edges and the pinker skin tones, the transfer’s age definitely shows its teeth. Still, this is an accurate and appealing presentation of one of the best looking slasher films out there. Credit Columbia for the hard work and Anchor Bay for removing the crop marks.
Okay, here’s where things get interesting. Much has been made about the “Out of the Blue” song replacement during a couple key scenes in the original (the opening chase and the school dance later on), but almost all of the orchestral parts differ between the two tracks. Other than the shared vocal ending by Syreeta, both tracks are almost completely different. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and say not only do I like the dated, early-eighties sound of “Out of the Blue”, but I think it fits better for the dance sequence at the 1:14:00 mark. I always found it weird that all these teens were dancing it up with disco strobes galore, to some soft classical piece. That’s about the only positive thing I’ll say for Columbia’s replacement track, though, since the opening is very out of place (out of the blue, even) and takes away from the suspense of that memorable chase. Not only that, but the orchestral track used for the Columbia presentation is a shrill, incoherent mess of pieces without melody or unity. There’s also a lot more of it, too. During the pivotal flashback scene where mother and daughter drive off the bridge, the Columbia DVD has this grating string track that makes the whole bit soap opera in approach. By comparison, the Anchor Bay score (and that used on previous VHS and theatrical exhibitions) comes in only later, leaving much of the scene in somber, off-putting silence.
The Columbia mix sounds like it would have been used on that theoretical fifties movie the cover seems to hark back to. It’s in every way canned and generic, and with no recurring themes or order. Where the Anchor Bay disc really thrives is on Lance (Motel Hell
) Rubin’s layered and theme-building structure. Even the faintest of background accompaniment plays of melodies and keys used for the memorable opening and closing tracks. The music builds to something in the Anchor Bay disc, whereas in the Columbia presentation it’s just there to jar or satisfy for the moment. Kudos to Anchor Bay for settling whatever issue Columbia had overlooked by restoring the original, and much better, score. The track presented here is clean and clear, although you’ll be hard pressed to find any surround work in their advertised “Dolby Surround 2.0” track. The Columbia track, though, however worse it is, still really is an interesting curiosity. I’m not getting rid of mine.
There is nothing advertised on the back of the box, but Anchor Bay has at least included the original theatrical trailer on the DVD. The trailer is one of those perfect teasers they used to do in the eighties, with footage shot specifically for the preview. It’s a slow, elaborate crane onto a cake, where an axe (who the hell needs a knife?!) pummels a cake with the title written in the memorable font. Great stuff. The thing is, though, this is Anchor Bay, and they’ve built a reputation on giving great genre films great special editions. Happy Birthday to Me is no modest throwaway – it’s one of the most notable slasher films from the era. Eight years ago Anchor Bay gave us a wonderful special edition of the much more obscure Madman, but now, with all their resources, they could muster only a trailer. I won’t even bring up Blu-ray…
Happy Birthday to Me
is one of a kind in the slasher genre – a robust, nearly two hour splatter picture with old Hollywood class in front and behind the camera. In a genre so often defined by amateur production values, this has some huge stunts, top notch camera work and a style to put most other slashers to shame. Yet, despite all the Hollywood gloss, it still retains some pretty perverse plot points thanks to the distinctive Val Lewtons of Canada, producers John Dunning and Andre Link. Anchor Bay’s DVD presents the film finally restored with its original audio, but the video is merely a lift from the solid, but now five years old, Columbia DVD. The biggest disappointment is the lack of any special features other than a trailer. Considering the special edition that Dunning & Link’s My Bloody Valentine
received earlier this year, and Anchor Bay’s old track record of genre champions, the botching of this Birthday
is no doubt the biggest party pooper of the year. Happy Birthday to Me
turns 30 next year…hopefully then Anchor Bay will give it a celebration worth remembering.
Movie - A-
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B-
Supplements - C-
- Running Time - 1 hour 51 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- English subtitles