Blood on the birthday cake
According to Jack Blum, J. Lee Thompson revelled in the red stuff, and a common cry of his was "More blood! More blood!". The film's gory mayhem was orchestrated by special effects guru Tom Burman (who replaced Stéphan Dupuis just three weeks before the cameras were due to start rolling). Dupuis later did the duties on another bigger budget Canadian slasher VISITING HOURS (1982), but left the production for undisclosed reasons (but might have been to do with his age and relative inexperience, as he was only 18 or 19 at the time). In the film's press kit, Burman said, “The murder victims in this picture refuse to stay put. My job was to bring them back to life … or death … as scarily as possible. It's what we call 'graphic repulsion'.” Burman was also aware of the growing cult around sfx artists, he said “The current popularity of fright pictures has been a boon to make up people. The kids know us. We're starting to get publicity. It's very gratifying.” Somewhat at odds with this, in an issue of Fangoria from 1981, Burman ironically – given his profession – criticises the level of gore in films at that time.
According to Caelum Vatnsdal, in his wonderful history of the Canadian horror cinema, They Came From Within, Lesleh Donaldson told him that those made up as corpses for the climactic birthday party snuck out and frightened the locals! Jack Blum told me that he was happy to have been killed with just garden shears to the chest (when I asked him if he was disappointed to have not got a more elaborate death scene). He said the climactic party scene took around a week to film – a long time in all that makeup. He told me that Matt Craven – he of the shish-kebab murder legend - had it hardest: "[It was] … infinitely more complicated and difficult and his week as a dead guy entirely less comfortable (imagine trying to eat lunch with that makeup)".
Cut or not cut?
This leads into the murky issue of whether the film suffered at the hands of the censor. MY BLOODY VALENTINE had famously born the brunt of the MPAA's backlash against violent movies (in the light of criticism they received from the media, critics and pressure groups, which only increased after the murder of John Lennon in New York on the 8 December 1980). It was shorn of many of its bloodier moments, so it would seem to make sense that HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME would have suffered similar butchery by the hands of the MPAA.
In the UK, the BBFC passed the film without any cuts on 30 April 1981 (with a running time of 110m 34s). However, often Britain receives already cut prints after their release in the United States. Having said that, the BBFC judged the film before it had been released in the States, so, as with FRIDAY THE 13TH before it (which also was released uncut in the UK compared to the R-rated release Stateside) it may have escaped any MPAA cuts, if there were any. The MPAA does not list when it was awarded its R-rating beyond the year of 1981.
Because, presumably, each tussle with the MPAA costs money, it is also possible that the producers – or Columbia Pictures – may have pre-cut the film before presenting it to the censors to avoid that cost and duck any negative publicity. Certainly, an image that featured in Fangoria (the death by motorcycle wheel) was much gorier than what appeared in the film. The Japanese programme for the film also shows the aftermath of the weight-lifting death (and a retrospective in Fangoria in 2004 showed the gory aftermath of Bernadette’s death). However, it is always worth remembering that many of these were professional shots taken on set, and not taken from excised footage as such – but it is likely that they were at least filmed even if they were removed early on.
I have compared the shish-kebab and weight lifting murders on my old RCA/Columbia VHS pre-cert tape against the 2004 Columbia Region 1 DVD against the new Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD, and they all appear the same. Some say that the UK red label 18 certificate tape has longer scenes (I used to have it, but ironically got rid of it because I believed that the pre-cert would be longer). However, the BBFC website lists that as having a running time of 106m 2s (PAL speedup would affect the running time (shortening it by about 4%)), but the re-release in 2004 (probably a UK version of the US release from that year) had a running time of 5 seconds more. The 2004 release (at least in the States) was controversial for its appalling cover (showing a boss-eyed girl with green eyes holding a birthday cake with a knife in it; behind her, for some reason, a gothic castle), as well as substituted music (a rights issue – or as some have pondered, an earlier cut of the film from the one that was eventually released). The 2009 Anchor Bay release used the original music, but was otherwise a bare bones release.
Adam Rockoff's excellent Going to Pieces states that the film was released “virtually uncut” because of Thompson's stature with the MPAA. However, in an interview in Fangoria with one of the film's producers, they said that footage had indeed been cut at the behest of the censors. I have also heard rumours that it was withdrawn from cinema release and further cut by distributors nervous of the backlash against violent movies, despite being given more-or-less a stamp of approval by the MPAA in a cut form. This, of course, does sound pretty unlikely, but I have read reports from people who remember this happening back during its initial run (as well as those who remember that Fangoria reported on it happening). I have also read reports that the film was edited for cable in the States, although it certainly wouldn't have been unusual to sometimes drastically edit slasher films for their TV showings (which partially explains why some films, such as HALLOWEEN II (1981) had extra scenes shot to re-bolster the running time after some excesses were cut).
What is the truth? We may never know. Certainly, back before MY BLOODY VALENTINE's glorious mostly uncut re-release, Dunning boasted of having the excised footage locked in a safe for that one. However, I have never heard a similar boast about HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. Having said that, they purposefully upped the ante gore wise in MY BLOODY VALENTINE to woo the audience who loved FRIDAY THE 13TH. As HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME was made before it, it is arguable that the same was true of that film. Again, it is one of those slasher film mysteries we may never truly unravel.