Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #90
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: May 15, 1981
Sub-Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: Canada
Running Time: 110 minutes
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Producers: John Dunning, Stewart Harding, Andre Link
Screenplay: Timothy Bond, Peter Jobin, John Saxton
Special Effects: Thomas R. Burman
Cinematography: Miklós Lente
Score: Bo Harwood, Lance Rubin
Editing: Debra Karen
Studios: Canadian Film Development Corporation, Famous Players, The Birthday Film Company
Distributor: RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Stars: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker, Frances Hyland, Tracey E Bregman, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lenore Zann, David Eisner, Lisa Langlois, Michel-René Labelle, Richard Rebiere, Lesleh Donaldson, Earl Pennington
♫ Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Leslie Gore It’s My Party
 Syreeta Happy Birthday to Me
Birthday parties mean the world to any youngster, not only because of the troves of gifts to feverishly open, but also because of the social implications. To a teen struggling to fit in with their fellow classmates it presents an exclusive opportunity to discover who your true buddies are and which allegiances are merely fickle. A true friend would not miss such a monumental landmark and will drop everything to join in your celebrations. There is, however, one way to ensure that all the fair-weather friends arrive on cue as imparted by J. Lee Thompson’s little-known 1981 Canadian slasher Happy Birthday to Me although it spells trouble for your social circle.
Thompson had already enjoyed prosperity on a number of occasions during his heyday in the early sixties. He followed The Guns of Navarone in 1961 with Cape Fear a year later by and, whilst debatably his following works weren’t up to those impossibly high standards, he was still something of a swinging dick in the industry. One reason why Thompson gained such a solid reputation amongst his peers was that he was aware exactly how to coax the very best from his actors. Never satisfied with merely shouting “cut” whilst perched behind the camera like an untouchable buddha, he would personally direct them every step of the way.
Thompson added another string to his bow in 1981 as he conjured up one of the more noteworthy entries in the eighties stalk and slash cycle. Pound for pound, Happy Birthday to Me was certainly one of the most ambitious efforts to emerge during the golden age of slasher and boasted a number of noteworthy performances, none more so than Melissa Sue Anderson who played our lead Virginia Wainwright and Glenn Ford as her psychiatrist, David Faraday. It also knew how to grab your attention with its poster image, depicting some sorry douche receiving an unwanted sheesh kebab skewer to his gaping maw, alongside its audacious tagline, boasting “Six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see.” More on that later.
Virginia is thrilled to have made it into the Crawford Academy “Top Ten”. This elite group come from well-to-do backgrounds and she has always dreamed of gaining acceptance into their exclusive clique. It is just the shot in the arm that she desperately needs, having been involved in a freak car accident that killed her mother and left her requiring regenerative brain surgery. Unfortunately for Virginia, her new pals are disappearing one-by-one and, with her eighteenth birthday party looming large, she has no idea how many party hats to prepare. As if that weren’t already bad enough, she begins to suffer from blackouts that result in memory loss, leaving her well and truly dazed and confused.
Happy Birthday to Me starts particularly strongly, providing us with a well-staged and suspenseful dispatch straight off the bat to get us in the mood. There is a genuine giallo feel to the opening scene with the killer clad in black gloves and wielding a switch blade, which Thompson continues to milk for all it’s worth as he continues to uphold the mystery until midway through the second act. Even then, when it appears as though the identity of our psycho is no longer ambiguous, he continues to have us second guessing right up until a climax pre-loaded with twists and turns. Meanwhile, the eventual reveal is far more intricate and thoughtful than most other slashers and certainly one of the more memorable conclusions of its era.
Anderson makes for a compelling lead as the befuddled Virginia, displaying the right mix of vulnerability and belly fire to carry the entire film on her dainty shoulders but, she is also more than ably assisted. Ford supplies what could easily have been token shrink with real heft, while Lawrence Dane and Sharon Acker both excel as her parents (the latter through a number of masterfully implemented flashbacks). However, being primarily a slasher flick, the real meat and potatoes lays with the disposable teens themselves and it is here that Happy Birthday to Me graduates with ease. The well-rounded group really feel like a collective, as opposed to the usual colorless 1,2,3 fodder and many of them went on to feature in other eighties genre efforts.
So about that “Six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see” claim then. While this cunning marketing ploy undoubtedly catches the eye, I have witnessed many more peculiar snuffs than the half-dozen on exhibit here. To be fair, three of the murders are fairly outré, with the motorcycle and weightlifting killings standing out in particular, while the skewer scene has already been promised by the sleeve artwork so, by the time it arrives (with a different recipient to the one depicted on the poster), we see it coming well in advance. Having said that, it’s tantalizingly drawn out and will make you think twice about entrusting another with a kebab stick for some time to come, no matter how much your nuts ache.
With a generous $3.5m budget at his disposal, Thompson certainly had the tools at his disposal to spin his yarn and his direction is no less assured than we would expect from such a distinguished filmmaker. His manipulation of light helps create an atmosphere while, in Miklós Lente, he has a cinematographer who appreciates his vision. Sadly, this overlooked movie remains one of the more obscure efforts from the period. After this, Thompson would go on to direct the similarly slasher flavored Charles Bronson vehicle 10 To Midnight, but this was the ideal way to cut his teeth with the genre. Despite being left behind somewhat, Happy Birthday To Me has aged far better than many of its counterparts, and that makes it one birthday worth celebrating in my book.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Infuriatingly, the MPAA demanded cuts to a number of the murders and this is particularly disheartening given that Thomas R. Burman’s gore effects are some of the finest of the period. Having said that, the weightlifting dispatch in particular doesn’t need gushing grue to swear you off pumping iron for life and brings new meaning to the term “bench press”. Meanwhile, the brain surgery scene is pretty strong stuff for its time, bearing in mind it was almost thirty years before Saw III desensitized us to this procedure. Most impressive though is the grisly aftermath depicted during the infamous party scene as each stiff is given their very own seat at the dinner table, making for one particularly fucked up birthday bash.
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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2015)