HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME began production at the beginning of July 1980. At the helm was the once heavyweight British director of the classic CAPE FEAR (1962), J. Lee Thompson. He'd even cut his teeth with Alfred Hitchcock many years before as his dialogue coach.
Thompson had actively been looking to direct a horror movie, so jumped at the chance to work on this. In the press pack he rather unconvincingly says, “What attracted me to this script was that the young people stood out as vivid, individual characters. The difference between a good chiller and exploitative junk – at least in my opinion – is whether or not you care about the victims.” He also compares the film's sleight-of-hand to Hitchcock's love of tricking the audience – although I do wonder if old Hitch might have baulked at a climax that involved pulling panty hose off someone's head? He also says in the notes (ending with a fine double-entendre, presumably unintentionally), “When I read Happy Birthday to Me, I knew that it would be a tour-de-force for a young actress. So the first challenge was to find someone who could pull it off.” Well, he wouldn't have been the first director to insist on that!
Thompson clearly got a taste for cheesy slashers, as he went on to direct the naked killer opus 10 TO MIDNIGHT in 1983. Despite the film's now campy reputation (and it was widely derided by critics at the time), Jack Blum, who played Alfred in the film told me that Thompson took the film seriously, and wasn't doing any kind of send up on purpose. As it is, he handles the action like the pro he was.
Former Hollywood big mover Glenn Ford, however, seemed less than thrilled to be in the picture (maybe he need a new pool). The press notes make much of his returning 'home' (he was born in Quebec Province in 1917), but the fact that there are no quotes from him about the film speaks volumes. As charming as she was, Melissa Sue Anderson was no Rita Hayworth and Ford was no longer making films such as GILDA (1946). Perhaps this resulted in his dark mood while filming. Apparently he was less than pleasant on set (reportedly throwing tantrums and even punches). Still, his calibre of actor brings a bit of Hollywood glamour to the proceedings, a rare thing indeed for most contemporary slashers which kept costs to a minimum with largely unknown (and cheap) actors and actresses. Perhaps only Lauren Bacall in THE FAN (1981) is another similarly established old-school star in a subgenre movie of this type.
Of course, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is infamous as a slash-for-cash Canadian slasher picture (so named after the attractive tax relief that could be claimed on these films). It finished filming in September of 1980 (five months after the release of FRIDAY THE 13TH). Much of it was shot in and around Loyola College in Montreal (doubling as the fictional Crawford Academy, which a version of the script has as being in Exeter, Massachusetts). Although the draw bridge scenes, where the characters play 'chicken' and where the accident where Virginia's mother died took place were actually filmed in Phoenix, New York, just outside Syracuse. The producers found it difficult to find the right bridge closer to home (as the expansion of the Highway system had made them increasingly rare). Apparently, the whole town closed up shop to come and watch the dangerous stunts! So tricky were they that a total of fifteen cars were junked, and stunt driver hospitalised with two broken ankles.
As I’ve already described, the film’s ending was changed to make the twist even more outrageous. The claims in the press notes that three endings were shot to keep everyone guessing was bogus – and seemingly designed to hide the fact that the script was being rewritten so late in the day. Indeed, Tracey E Bregman told me that she was flabbergasted to be told that she was to be the killer half way through the film, especially as she had already filmed her death scene! She was told over dinner that the switch had been made after they had watched the dailies of a scene she was in that had ignited the idea. She also told me that, despite that mask looking like pantyhose, the demasking scene took a layer of skin off her face which took months to heal.
Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin provided the film's score - and Syreeta, one-time wife of Stevie Wonder, provided the eerie closing track that plays over the credits.