The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981)

A mysterious killer is bumping off snobby students at a prestigious academy.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: J Lee Thompson

Starring: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Matt Craven

An early entry in the slasher cycle spawned from the success of Halloween, this has the distinction of having a director of some ability at the helm. J Lee Thompson had a career that spanned kitchen sink dramas, prestige war films and slick thrillers. In later years he became the go to director for Charles Bronson during the Cannon years.

In some ways Happy Birthday to Me is the progenitor of the Final Destination films in its desire to find new ways of offing the teen cast (the tagline even hypes the films as ‘six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see’). Truth be told, the murders are not that bizarre, and this film eschews the nastiness of some later entries in the slasher field. The focus is more on mystery and suspense with a somewhat half-hearted attempt at sticking it to the entitled moneyed upper classes of America. Think Scooby Doo but with Shaggy getting a meat skewer in the kisser and you’re some way to getting the tone of Happy Birthday to Me.

The self-styled ‘Top Ten’ are the rich elite at Crawford Academy who meet regularly at the Silent Woman tavern, (a place liable to get bad reviews on trip advisor due to the rat stepped beer, heavily moustachioed freemasons singing drinking songs and 30-year-olds pretending to be students). When one of their friends is murdered, a train of grisly deaths follow. Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson), the new girl in the clique, looks the most likely suspect, what with the dead mum and brain surgery. Or is it Alfred (Jack Blum), a man with a rat fetish and winner of the Keith Gordon lookalike contest 1981? Or the French student and blooming panty sniffer Etienne (Michel Rene Labelle)? As the list of suspects is literally whittled down by the black gloved killer it becomes clear early on who is doing the killing; however, as most of the clique are so unlikeable, this is liable to induce cheers with every death rather than screams.

And therein lies the problem. With a fairly hefty running time of two hours, you might expect a little more characterisation. Only Virginia, with her slightly too touchy-feely dad and brain issues, elicits any kind of sympathy. That all the male and female characters have a fluid idea of relationships may be true of college life, but it makes it rather confusing to remember what character others are talking about, particularly when the main personality trait of the Top Ten is entitled asshole.

Slow though the pacing is, for an esteemed director there is much embracing of violence. It may start out like an American Giallo, but soon reverts to the set up and kill style that makes up most of Tom Savini's horror effects output in the '80s. Thompson never feels like he's slumming it and seems to enjoy staging the stalk and slash scenes more than the by the numbers detective story going on in the background. Only Glenn Ford feels out of place as a psychiatrist doing the Basil Exposition role while waiting to be bumped off so he can cash his pay cheque.

What it does have is one of the best posters for a slasher and one of the more bizarre endings to a film, one which will either have you groaning or doing a "what just happened?" shake of the head. I love the ending personally; it’s in keeping with the Mystery Van stylings of the plot. The flashbacks to Virginia and how her mum died are camp of the highest order. Sharon Ackerman as Virginia's mum gives a full tilt rolling eyes shouting to the rafters performance that livens things up no end.

Happy Birthday to Me is no masterpiece, but it does have a sense of fun, and although it doesn’t live up to the gore soaked horror that I remember from my childhood VHS days, it's still good solid, if occasionally turgid hokum.

Good solid presentation on blu-ray, with the option to listen to an alternate music track from a previous DVD release. An assortment of trailers and TV Spots. A 24 page booklet with extracts from the original press kit and an audio commentary from podcasters The Hysteria Continues, which is OK but inessential, more of a pub conversation than a rigorous investigation of the film. A relatively minor batch of extras made up by the fantastic HD restoration of the film itself.

Happy Birthday to Me is available on blu-ray now from Powerhouse Films.