This retrospective contains major spoilers. If you have not watched the film proceed with caution!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME
directed by: J. Lee Thompson Produced by: André Link and John Dunning
"Maybe we should all put in $20 and the last one left takes all!"
- the odds are beginning to shorten for the Crawford Top Ten!
Review by JA Kerswell
Oh, the ways I love thee. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is the slasher bees knees. It is the undeniable love child of SCOOBY DOO and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980). The epitome of early 80s slasher movie fun. OK, it has the running time of an unabridged adaptation of WAR AND PEACE (weighing in at a whopping 110 minutes), but that just means there's more stalk 'n' slash goodness to go round.
Of course, by 1981 the floodgates were well and truly open after the success of HALLOWEEN (1978) and the previous year's FRIDAY THE 13TH. Ostensibly, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME was intended to be a classy, relatively big budget affair (at around $2.5 million) – even though, at its heart, it's a teen slasher through and through.
The film starts with a false scare (neatly mirroring the trick ending that tops the film and similar sleight-of-hand jolts dotted liberally throughout), as one of the elitist Crawford Top Ten, Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson), falls foul of the headmistress' dog when she trips over his lead. Of course, things turn deadly when a black-gloved assailant lurking in the back of her car actually attacks her. She manages to battle whoever it is off, but is chased around an underground car park (a scene very possibly lifted from Massimo Dallamano's giallo-cum-policesploitation epic WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? (1974) – which, incidentally, got a belated 1980 Stateside cinema release under the title THE CO-ED MURDERS, complete with a very slasheresque poster). When she's finally confronted by the killer, she initially thinks she has found a friend: “It's you!” (something said by several of the cast before they are bumped off), but relief turns to terror as it turns out they are brandishing a cut-throat razor. The blink and you'll miss it shot of her slit throat attests to the censorship battle the film reportedly suffered. Donaldson is, as ever, a pleasure to watch; even if she has less than five minutes screen-time (incidentally, she scored the lead as the final-girl in William Fruet's FUNERAL HOME (1980) – apparently becoming even more popular than Jamie Lees Curtis in Mexico as a result! – as well as appearing in the best scene in the much troubled CURTAINS (1983)).
The film then introduces what’s left of the Crawford Top Ten. They enjoy practical jokes at the expense of the patrons at the Silent Woman Inn where they chug beer, and live life to the full (and almost beyond when a dangerous game of chicken with cars on a bridge almost kills three of them). The clique are archetypical rich kids, dizzy on youth and good looks – and, ultimately, it is their spoilt nature that is the key to the film's jaw-dropping denouement. It's here that we meet the film's would-be final-girl, Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson). She freaks out during the stunt, and we learn later that her drunken mother, Estelle (Sharon Acker), died and almost killed her on that very same bridge four years ago after the snobby Crawford Top Ten snubbed her birthday plans by not turning up to her party. Virginia suffered a severe head injury (we see flashbacks to gory brain surgery special effects that, if the press notes are to be believed, were overseen and actually performed by a “brilliant Canadian brain surgeon”!), that is still giving her trouble. Even worse are her split ends. If her father could have afforded to employ her a psychiatrist to help with her blackouts and memory loss, David (a rather embarrassed looking Glen Ford it has to be said in his 221st film role), he could have surely bought her some conditioner. Virginia has returned to the area with her father (Lawrence Dane) and Crawford Academy, but most of her new friends don't remember her from before ...
As her birthday looms, David encourages her to remember that night – and says that she will finally recall the accident. Her treatment coincides with murder, as the Crawford Top Ten continue to hit the floor in creative ways. The second is Etienne (Michel-René Labelle), the French student who had stolen Virginia's silky knickers from under her nose; brandishing them after winning a motor-cross rally, much to her annoyance. The film not so much points the finger at Virginia as being the prime suspect as shouts it from the rooftops. Etienne meets a sticky end after someone wearing black leather gloves (and white gym shoes – hopefully not after Labor Day) throws his scarf into the spinning wheels of a motorbike. Isadora Duncan in flares.
The camera continually takes on the role of a voyeur through the point-of-view shot, no more so than when we see through the eyes of someone (Etienne as it turns out) as if they are hiding in the back of Virginia's closet as she undresses. The film has enough red herrings to crowd the Atlantic; with almost every main character staring into middle distance with a vaguely sinister expression on their face at least once. Not least of all the nerdy Alfred (Jack Blum), who just happens to have a severed head prop of Bernadette in his room (giving Virginia and Anne (Tracey E. Bregman) a fright). Plus Rudy (David Eisner), who for some strange reason brandishes a knife at Virginia in the college's bell tower as a joke (and then not only pretends to be dead but actually buries a skeleton in the grounds as a prank). Later he says, “Do you know, the cops are out there dragging the canal for bodies!” as the ones still alive are enjoying a boogie at the local disco! Even the headmistress (Frances Hyland) has a grudge against the rich kids. The film keeps you guessing until the outlandish and delicious Grand Guignol ending.
Of course, you can't discuss HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME without discussing the film's climactic unmasking at Virginia's 18th birthday party from hell. By the half-way mark it appears that Virginia is actually the killer all along, as we see her stab Alfred in the gut with gardening shears as he comes up behind her as she tends her mother's grave. We also see her kill Steve (Matt Craven) with that infamous shish-kebab. However, the real killer is actually Anne, who has perfected a Virginia mask so realistic that no one (including us viewers) have any idea until she pulls it off at the birthday party, where the dead bodies of most of the Crawford Top Ten are decoratively dotted around the table. Yes, it's a cheat. A complete and utter cheat. The mask is so thin it looks like she's pulling panty hose of her head. This spoils the film for some viewers, but for me it’s the cherry-on-the-cake; top-ending the whacked out SCOOBY DOO vibe of the last two hours. Then, of course, there is the bitter sweet ironic coda, where the real Virginia vanquishes the killer, but, as the police arrive, is sure to be implicated for all the murders as she is the last one left alive.
Split ends not withstanding, Melissa Sue Anderson is great as the one 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 LAST HOUSE ON THE PRARIE. 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 (just 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 HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME as a serious thriller is downright misleading (and doesn't do its zany charms any justice). Judging by the poster art for the film, and the promise of mayhem it advertised, Columbia seems to have wisely had second thoughts.
I know the film has its detractors amongst subgenre enthusiasts, but to me it is the zenith of early 80s slasher movie fun. Not mean-spirited but giddy on its own ridiculousness. More concerned with taking its audience on a ghost train rather than pushing boundaries. What it does lose points on – bar the scene in the underground car park – is its lack of cat-and-mouse theatrics. If the film had incorporated a couple of chases (and arguably shortened a couple of scenes), HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME could well have been the best early 80s slasher film of them all. As it is, it certainly sits in the upper reaches of Kerswell’s Top Ten!
Bodycount 9 female:3 / male:6
1) Female teen has throat cut with 'cut-throat' razor
You can read the original Hysteria Lives! review here.