HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Year of release: 1981
Country of origin: Canada
Running time: 110 minutes
DVD/Blu ray: Both
Taglines: "Pray your not invited", "Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see".
Casting the spotlight on the slasher genre
Story: The film focuses on a group of elite privileged students at Crawford High School who refer to themselves as the Crawford Top Ten. On the way to join the rest of the group at a local tavern, Top Ten member Bernadette, is assaulted by someone hiding in her car. Though the assailant remains hidden from both Bernadette and the viewer we see the individual is wearing a pair of black leather gloves. Bernadette manages to escape and moments later runs into someone she knows. Far from being safe however it turns out this person is in fact the attacker and Bernadette has her throat cut with a straight razor. This trend continues throughout the film with members of the Top Ten being stalked and killed by a mystery figure with gloves though several of the victims appear to recognise the attacker before their demise. The newest member of the group is Vaginia, a young woman who has recently returned to town after some time away. She is worried she may have something to do with the disappearances of her friends due to suffering from blackouts and memory loss. This stems from an accident she was involved in some years before which claimed her mothers life though the nature of the accident itself she can no longer remember. We later learn that she was very badly injured and almost died along with her mother and only a radical experimental form of brain surgery was responsible for her recovery. As more and more members of the Top Ten disappear Virginia struggles to untangle the mystery of who is behind it or if indeed it is her herself responsible and now she can't remember. She begins to suspect that fragments of memories about the accident which are slowly coming back to her could hold the key to unraveling the situation now unfolding around her. On top of all this her birthday is fast approaching but at the rate things are going she worries none of her friends will be left alive to attend.
Good points: This one has quite an interesting lead character who is not really your typical final girl. Sometimes she comes across as likeable and vulnerable but on other occasions not so likeable at all. The blackouts and memory loss also make us question whether or not we can trust her in the first half or so of the movie adding a layer of mystery early on. The actress playing the role of Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson) does a fine job and acts out the part well as do most of the cast to be fair.
The film feels a little bit more like a mix of genres instead of just a slasher and most of the time this works well. Although with other slashers this can sometimes be a negative, veteran director J. Lee Thompson manages to provide an ideal blend here of slasher, horror, mystery and thriller. Being such a mixture lends to a complex film which keeps you guessing as to who the killer may be. Even when things are made more clear as to who the killer is we are still left with a feeling of something not being quite right with the ending being almost impossible to predict.
Speaking of which I liked the ending which was shocking and not something I could have even begun to suspect. I can see why some wouldn't like it as it does require you to suspend your disbelief a fair bit and perhaps doesn't 100% make sense but it is still effective It really caught me of guard anyway and makes for a creepy climax which I think will leave a lasting impression.
There are some really good deaths which still hold up today as being original and impactful. I wouldn't go as far to say they are six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see as one of the taglines implies as some are ordinary but some do impress with my favourite being the weights death.
The film scores quite highly on the gore front and although there is not a huge amount of blood or special effects for all the kills when they do pull out the stops it is done well. In particular the brain surgery scenes and the famous party scene at the end have good effects. I'd say that the film as a whole has impressive production values for the time with things looking slick and well put together throughout. There are also some stunts involving cars that look pretty good.
I liked the soundtrack for this one in particular in the beginning and at the end as well for the birthday party scene. There was some controversy with the DVD release which tampered with the original score changing things most notably in the opening section of the film which at the time left many fans unhappy. Thankfully though things were returned to normal for the Blu Ray release.
Bad Points: There are a few small things going on throughout which don't really make sense and when you add them all together they do let the film down a bit. For example at the start when Bernadette falls down and is approached by the her teacher and her pet dog it looks as if someone has deliberately taken her legs out from under her using the dog lead as a lasso. This doesn't make any sense though and frankly just looks nonsensical. Also Greg's car seems to nose dive into the ground after jumping the drawbridge but he doesn't seem to even notice his car was damaged. I can't quite recall now but I think the damage may disappear later on as well. There is also a very strange scene in the bell tower involving Virginia and Rudi which I found confusing. I can only assume that Rudy is trying to play a prank to make it look like he has been killed but if so that is in very poor taste seeing that some of his friends are really missing, perhaps killed themselves for all he knows. It also seems unlikely he would cut his own hand just to set the stunt up. Presumably Virginia is supposed to blackout around this time but what would Rudy have done if she hadn't? Was he expecting her to hep him with the ruse or was the trick meant for her? Another weird thing is the overuse of blood when Doctor David gets killed. He is only hit in the head with a poker but with the amount of blood it looks like a slaughter house.
Due to red herrings and little things which don't make sense the film can come across as a bit hard to follow. It is definitely a bit more complex than most films in the genre which although a novel approach sometimes can work against it. This is particularly true of the ending which although I like is admittedly a mind bender and as alluded to earlier maybe doesn't make complete sense. I'm going to mention a couple of spoilers for the rest of this bullet point so read on at your peril if you haven't yet seen the film. In light of the ending reveal it seems unlikely that Virginia would be able to be drugged/knocked out with chloroform or whatever it was so easily on three separate occasions. Also how would Ann know about the promise Virginia's dad made to her about being there when she had another birthday party? It was Virginia he was talking to here not Ann though I guess Virginia could have told her about it later after they became close.
I'm not a fan of the artwork poster with the kebab as it gives too much away and reveals one of the kills for those watching it for the first time.
Verdict: An enjoyable film which still holds up very well to this day and is rightfully and fondly remembered as one of the best films from the boom period of the genre in the eighties. Feeling quite different to many other slashers due to the strong emphasis on mystery and plot, this film also has some good acting and bountiful (for the era) production values. On top of all this we have a couple of innovative memorable death scenes. It is just a shame things are ever so slightly let down by the confusing nature of the film at times and the scattering of little bits and pieces that don't make sense.
Bodycount (contains major spoilers):
1) Bernadette: Throat cut with a straight razor.2) Etienne: Face pulled into a moving motorbike wheel after his scarf becomes tangled up.3) Greg: Crushed by heavy weights as he was trying to bench press. 4) Alfred: Stabbed with garden pruning shears.5) Steve: Stabbed through the mouth with a kebab skewer.6) Doctor David: Hit on the back of the head with a poker.7) Virginia's father: Throat cut. 8) Ann: stabbed in the chest by Virginia.