I’ve spent the better part of my adult life convinced that I harbored a strong dislike for the borderline slasher obscurity that is Happy Birthday to Me. For some reason, I remember it as an ugly little film that bored and depressed the hell out of me as a kid, and, for that reason alone, I’ve not watched it since the hazy days of VHS rental. Maybe it was the drugs (it was the eighties after all) or perhaps my younger self’s predilection for “slash-by-numbers” fare, as, after watching the film recently, I absolutely loved it. I guess it’s just one of those things – like Brussels sprouts, stinky cheese, and girls with big noses (okay, maybe that last one’s more of a personal fetish) – where one has to reach a certain level of maturity before they can truly appreciate how awesome they really are.
Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson) was a shy girl who longed to be part of the in-crowd. When her birthday rolled around, Ginny decided to invite the ten most popular kids at her school in hopes they would welcome her into their inner circle. Unfortunately, one of the other popular girls was having a party of her own, and everyone went there instead of poor Ginny’s. Infuriated, Ginny’s mother dragged her daughter out of the house to go and give those cruel kids a piece of her mind, but, instead, wrapped their car around a tree, killing herself, and nearly killing Ginny.
Years later, after several surgeries and some seriously intense therapy, the once-shy Ginny is finally starting to come out of her shell. She’s finally achieved her dream of being one of the “top 10” as she is now a popular student at the swanky new private school her dad enrolled her in. Despite her progress, she’s still having trouble coping, and, following a game of chicken with her friends that almost gets them killed, Ginny begins to suffer frequent blackouts and nasty flashbacks to her turbulent relationship with her abusive mother. Making matters worse, Ginny’s friends are disappearing one by one, leading Ginny to think that, in her fragile mental state, she may be the one responsible.
Happy Birthday to Me has more in common with late 70’s/early 80’s European thrillers than it does with the slasher films it is most associated with. The plot is something straight out of an Italian gialli film, with said genre’s sense of mystery, abundant red herrings, and a gloved killer to boot. It’s also a very atmospheric and tense little thriller; one that boasts above average performances from television stalwart, Anderson (Little House on the Prairie) and Hollywood legend, Glen Ford. The presence of Ford - most likely lured into the role by the film’s equally renowned director, J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear/The Greek Tycoon) - lends the production some serious credibility as well as a sense of maturity that, once again, separates Happy Birthday to Me from the de rigueur teen-friendly splatter flicks.
Still, the film is not above employing its fair share of bloodshed, as Happy Birthday to Me is a truly grisly affair, with wonderfully creative kills and a particularly disturbing conclusion that will have gore fans grinning like the little maniacs they are. As for the newly reintegrated score, while I won’t pretend to know the difference between it and the music offered on the previous release, I will say that this original orchestral score is quite effective and I can see why fans would bemoan its absence.
Anchor Bay had released the film on DVD some years back, but, due to rights issues, the release was sans the film’s original score. Fans cried foul, and Anchor Bay went back to work, somehow wrangling back the rights, and now present the film in its original theatrical state. The 1.85:1 print is still in pretty solid shape. There are a few artifacts and scratchy bits, but, save for an omnipresent cinematic grain, the film looks quite nice all things considered. Sadly, Anchor Bay offers nothing by way of extras with this release, save for some trailers for other AB/Starz! releases.
Rediscovering Happy Birthday to Me has been very enlightening. Had the film not crossed my desk for review purposes, I seriously doubt I’d have ever gotten around to giving it a second chance, and that means I would have missed out on one of the classiest, most polished, and gleefully delirious horror offerings of the 80’s. While, for all intents and purposes, it’s just easier to categorize this one as a slasher, it’s a heck of a lot more, and fans of European-style horror (gialli films, in particular), should give this one a serious look.