Reception: a critical mauling
Critical reaction to the film at the time was unsurprisingly harsh (slasher movies were mostly hated by mainstream critics then as now), when it was released to American screens on the 15th May 1981.
Vincent Canby in the New York Times said it was, “comparatively expensive ripoff of such teen-age love-and-meat-cleaver films as ''Friday the 13th'' and ''Prom Night.''” He went on to call it “confused” and said it was directed “without style”. Believe me, he was one of the kinder ones! James Harwood in Variety called the film “monumentally stupid” (as if that were a bad thing!), and summing up, “In her film debut, Melissa Sue Anderson clumsily carries the suspense of whether she is or isn't the killer, with director J. Lee Thompson helping her with clouds of confusion that just get dumber and dumber until the fitful finale.”
In the September 1981 issue of the British magazine Films on Screen and Video, Eric Braun, during an emotive (for all the wrong reasons) review stated that the film and others of its ilk were (somewhat improbably) responsible for the decline in cinema-going. He whined: "The systematic killing, unhappily, seems to extend to the cinemas on Rank's doomed list, which are being quite inevitably emptied by a constant diet of this kind of nonsense ... Please mourn with me the unhappy demise of many splendid halls of entertainment."
Halliwell's Guide was no kinder, describing it as an “Abysmal teenage shocker which grinds on relentlessly for almost two hours.” Critic Leonard Maltin sneered that Glenn Ford had hit “rock bottom” saying that he must have been “desperate for work”. Even some of the horror critics were not especially kind, with the Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror describing it as “... a lucklustre addition to the teenage horror cycle”, but did begrudgingly acknowledge the climax of the film had a “gothic effectiveness”.
Despite the mostly harsh critical notices HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME scared up a respectable $10 million at the American box office (which is just under $26 million in today's money).
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