‘Happy Birthday to Me’ (1981): Twisty, loopy early 80s slasher

Wanna feel stupid, like you can’t properly follow the plot of a simple 80s slasher film, only to have the ending spell it out for you? I’ve got a movie for you!

By Jason Hink

Happy Birthday to Me, recently released on Mill Creek Entertainment’s 10-movie DVD compilation, Shadow Stalkers, is a unique entry in the early slasher era. Released in 1981, what this Canadian thriller lacks in gore and elaborate kills, it makes up for in style and mystery, even if it’s a bit, uhh, contrived. But we’re talking about slasher films here! You know,  Halloween! Friday the 13th! So what’s wrong with a little contrivance to link all these killings together in a neat little package by movie’s end? that’s what I thought…so just shut up, pour yourself a drink and dim the lights; we’re not gonna think too hard about this.

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Directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring Melissa Sue Anderson (What!? Yes, it’s Mary Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie, my mother’s favorite show) and Glenn Ford(!), Happy Birthday to Me begins with a well-staged stalking of a high school girl in a darkened parking lot, the first of six brutal killings of the so-called “Top 10” that take place over the course of the film (the “Top 10” being the 10 most affluent, high-society kids at the school). After meeting the cast of fresh faces attending Crawford Academy, an uppity prep school for rich folk, we watch as the kids are knocked off in increasingly creative fashion, one by one, until only only a few remain. The bind that ties them together? Virginia “Ginny” Wainwright (Anderson), who we learn later has undergone some sort of strange, freaky brain surgery, and who thinks that perhaps she is the one committing the crimes, without knowing it.

Released by Columbia Pictures on May 15, 1981, the film also stars Sharon Acker, Frances Hyland, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lenore Zann, David Eisner, Michel-René Labelle, Richard Rebiere, and Lesleh Donaldson.

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With occasional trips to her kinda-creepy shrink, Dr. Faraday (Glenn Ford, reportedly not thrilled to be acting in a mere 80s slasher), Ginny tries to unravel why her friends are dropping like flies and how it all somehow relates to her birthday. Throughout the plotting, we learn that her mother died in a horrific accident four years earlier when she and Ginny got stuck crossing a draw bridge while it was opening, plunging the car into the river below where. Mom drowned while Ginny was able to escape and swim to the surface.

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Are you confused yet? Does any of this make sense? No? Good, because that’s how I felt about two-thirds through the film. After the sixth gruesome killing, only a handful of Ginny’s friends remained, including hottie best friend Ann (Tracey E. Bregman), Amelia (Lisa Langlois), and her father, Hal (Lawrence Dane). Who the hell is committing these killings? Is it really Ginny? Or is it creepy Dr. Faraday? Or is it daddy Hal, who’s always conveniently MIA when all the bad stuff happens?

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When I saw first saw Happy Birthday to Me as a youngster in the late 80s I remember being blown away by the ending only because it was such a ridiculous twist (o a 12-year-old viewer, of course)…a twist that many intelligent moviegoers thought was stupid, which maybe contributed to its negative reception from critics at the time. But over the years, the film has earned a cult following, and today’s critics are a little more forgiving, especially after learning that we were all  confused until the very end.

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And that’s the key to understanding the appeal to the film; the filmmakers wanted to confuse the viewer, making you question your sanity or whether or not you were paying attention because at that two-thirds point you start to wonder, “Wait, did I miss something here?” No…you didn’t. And that’s the beauty of it. When you reach the super ridiculous, super FUN conclusion, you realize you didn’t miss anything, and you backtrack in your mind, trying to remember which clues you might have missed that led to the conclusion on the screen. (I’m not going to spoil it in this review.)

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Having not watched Happy Birthday to Me in decades, I couldn’t help but notice a couple things that made me chuckle, the first of which is…just how old are these kids? I couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be college students or high schoolers. The first scene we see of them all together is at a local bar they apparently frequent, slamming pitchers of brew down along with the regulars. Were high schoolers allowed in bars in 1981?

RELATED | Read more 1980s movie reviews

And during a soccer match, the Crawford Academy cheerleaders are rocking miniskirts I imagine aren’t even allowed in professional sports today. But…it’s a slasher; that’s part of the fun, right? Bending the rules? Letting the kids go places they shouldn’t so they can get knocked off, teaching the youth of the day why they shouldn’t have been doing what these idiots are doing?

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Judging from information I read, the filmmakers didn’t set out to make a slasher more than they wanted a twisty, mysterious thriller. In fact, it plays more like the latter; a mystery with slasher “kills” thrown in, perhaps after seeing the popular trend take over at theaters. According to reports, production began before Friday the 13th was released, countering the knee-jerk reaction from critics that Happy Birthday to Me was simply another knockoff of that hit film (ultimately, Friday was released first). True or not, I can buy it; there’s enough non-slasher fodder here that, without the gore of the kills, the mystery still carries heft, though the kills are indeed fun: a man’s head is pushed into the spokes of a motorcycle wheel while it’s revving in the shop; a man “splatters” when too much weight is thrust upon him at bench press; and the fan favorite, as depicted on the poster, a shish kebob through the gullet!

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Six of the most bizarre murder you will ever see.” That was the marketing tag given the film by the studio, which didn’t suit the producers since they believed their kills were rather mild compared to gorier fare, like the above-mentioned Friday the 13th or countless other slashers (The Funhouse, Terror Train, etc.) released around that time. Nonetheless, the tag remained, and despite its false notion, it plays better today; the lack of gore is indeed more bizarre than what was expected at the time.

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Melissa Sue Anderson played Mary Ingalls from 1974 to 1981, going straight from wholesome Little House on the Prairie to this role of a potential killer, suffering from flashbacks following a harrowing experimental brain surgery. Anderson was 19 at the time of Happy Birthday to Me‘s release. She’d continue to work in television in bit parts and guest roles, even lending her voice to Saturday morning cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends in 1982-83. Her next film was 1983’s First Affair, but she’d never again match the popularity of her Little House on the Prairie role.

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Director J. Lee Thompson was best known for 1958’s Ice Cold in Alex and The Guns of Navarone (1961). Actress Tracey E. Bregman probably had the most success in the following years, becoming a successful soap opera regular with roles on The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of Our Lives. In 2016, she was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the Daytime Emmy Awards for her role as Lauren Fenmore in The Young and the Restless.

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My only real reservation is that the film is a bit long; at 110 minutes, it’s 20 minutes longer than most films in the genre, but it’s a small caveat only noticeable in spots. Happy Birthday to Me is a forgotten piece of early-80s horror-film candy, ready to be eaten up by those in the mood for some cheesy fun and outrageous plot twists normally reserved for the old-school nighttime soap operas. Just pour yourself a stiff whisky and cola before settling in and you’ll be just fine.

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Here are the 10 films on Mill Creek Entertainment’s Shadow Stalkers DVD set:

  • Out of the Dark
  • Happy Birthday to Me
  • Eyes of Laura Mars
  • Don’t Answer the Phone
  • Nightmare in Wax
  • Bloody Pit of Horror
  • Silent Night, Bloody Night
  • Funeral Home
  • Don’t Open Till Christmas
  • The Driller Killer

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