Happy Birthday To Me (1981) Blu-Ray Review
Running time: 110 mins
Director: J Lee Thompson
Cast: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Tracey E Bregman, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lenore Zann, Lesleh Donaldson
Out now on UK Blu-Ray from Powerhouse Films.
Originally released in 1981, Happy Birthday to Me has just received a UK blu-ray release prompting a long overdue look at the film that casts Little House on the Prairie’s Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson) at the centre of a slasher-fest. At the time, the casting itself must have been something of a surprise, allowing audiences to see the all American good girl in something rather less wholesome.
Anderson plays Virginia Wainwright (the birthday girl of the title) who has recently returned to school at Crawford Academy and been accepted in to the elite ‘top ten’ group. For top ten, read rich spoilt kids who hang out together, wreaking havoc and being crazy 80’s teens. Unfortunately for them, there is someone in town ready to ruin their fun and one by one each of Virginia’s new friends are picked off in elaborate and gruesome fashion. As the bodies pile up we learn more about Virginia’s past, the death of her mother and her subsequent trauma which has resulted in her seeing therapist Dr David (played by Hollywood stalwart Glenn Ford). Influences of Halloween in the writer’s mind? Perhaps, but Happy Birthday is a very different film to the slasher classic and you get the sense that tongue was somewhat in cheek when creating this film.
Opening as it means to go on, we witness the death of the first of the top ten: Bernadette, whose throat is cut as she heads to her car to join her friends at the Inn. As this is the early 80’s, the blood is red and the killer goes straight for the jugular, but surprisingly the camera doesn’t linger too long on the aftermath. When Bernadette doesn’t turn up for class the next morning, people are surprised but nobody seems overly concerned. Even her friends are blasé about where she might be. In fact even as more of the top ten go missing, the remaining ones seem faintly uninterested in where their friends have disappeared to. Then again they’re known for their tomfoolery and pranks, so why immediately panic? As Dr David tells Virginia (in a brilliant understatement), ‘some of your friends have a macabre sense of humour’.
The tagline for the film aptly claims this is ‘six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see’. It doesn’t lie and the killings are what ensures you stay hooked, waiting to see which friend will be next and how they’ll meet their fate. Director Thompson (who also directed the original Cape Fear) handles the tension and suspense of the murder scenes well, playing in to the horror genre with confidence. What makes this film memorable above others though, is the bizarre and insane script, credited to John C.W. Saxton, Peter Jobin and Timothy Bond. Whilst it fulfils the expected horror/slasher elements, it take so many outrageous twists and turns, your jaw will be left permanently dropped. You just need to give yourself over to a rather convoluted back story, some odd flashbacks to Virginia’s past and a little insanity come the finale. The film’s original trailer warned that ‘because of the bizarre nature of this birthday party, no-one will be seated in the last ten minutes of happy birthday to me’ and once you’ve watched the film, you’ll see why.
An interesting part of the early 80’s horror cannon, Happy Birthday to Me does everything in its power to entertain and falls just the right side of cheesy. The performances hit the mark, with Anderson showing a darker side to the sweet daddy’s girl most know and the ‘top ten’ giving us fairly believable (if not necessarily loveable) teenagers, with taxidermy fanatic Alfred, easily the most intriguing. Whilst the running time could be trimmed slightly, the film manages to maintain its momentum to become the sort of ‘cult’ viewing you could see yourself revisiting. One to watch, enjoy and not take too seriously.
6 out of 10
Extras on the Blu-Ray are –
INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES:
• HD restoration
• Original mono audio
• Alternative 5.1 surround sound track
• Alternative score: experience the film with the controversial re-scored electronic music soundtrack, as used on the 2004 home video re-release
• Audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues team: Justin Kerswell (author of Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut) Joseph Henson, Erik Threlfall and Nathan Johnson
• Image gallery: on-set and promotional material
• Original trailer and TV spots
• New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• Limited edition exclusive 24-page booklet with extracts from the original press kit, advertising and promotion guide, and selected film reviews
• UK Blu-ray premiere
• Limited Dual Format Edition of 5,000 copies