Canadian 80’s Cult Classic is Superior to its Many Slasher Peers

One of the signature horror films produced by legendary Canadian studio and distributor Cinepix, J. Lee Thompson’s 1981 shocker HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME often gets lumped into the post-FRIDAY THE 13th slasher cesspool but it’s much more than that. Cinepix creative braintrust John Dunning had first found fame in the genre via his “discovery” of David Cronenberg, with he and his partner Andre Link producing both of DC’s first features, SHIVERS and RABID. But Cinepix also co-financed and distributed a wealth of horror and dark fantasy films, including Harry Kumel’s 1971 vampire masterpiece DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS and the notorious ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS. These guys knew the market and when HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13th yielded big box office takes, Dunning and Link put together both this film and George Mihalka’s beloved East Coast killer thriller MY BLOODY VALENTINE. Now, VALENTINE is more of a straight-ahead masked-killer/body-count film, but HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME plays more like a giallo, with its convoluted mystery and its black-gloved murderer. Both films were distributed by major studios, but BIRTHDAY – the sleazier and more disturbing of the pair – escaped virtually uncut while VALENTINE was famously gutted by the MPAA and Paramount Pictures to secure its R rating.

If we’re comparing the two, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is the superior picture and that’s because of its director (Thompson was a veteran Hollywood filmmaker whose credits included CAPE FEAR) and for the fact that the story and script are totally loopy.  Dunning hired ILSA scribe John Saxton to come up with this tawdry tale, in which LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE starlet Melissa Sue Anderson appears as high school student Virginia, one of the elite rich-kids who hang=out together, wear grey and black striped scarves and call themselves “The Top 10”. Among that lot are Canadian cult film icons Lesleh Donaldson and Lisa Langlois, the former who is offed quickly and gruesomely in the first reel and the latter who was SUPPOSED to be axed (literally) but, in the final edit, ends up sticking around for the duration of the picture. Anyway, Virginia is having troubles, as she escaped a care-wreck that killed her mom years earlier and now is prone to blackouts and select amnesia. As her pals begin getting systematically slaughtered at the hands of a glove-wearing killer, their corpses mysteriously vanishing, Virginia begins to suspect that she might be to blame. And Thompson makes us believe this too. But IS she? The psychodrama climaxes in one of the truly great and batshit wacky finales in 80’s horror history, at Virginia’s bloody 18th birthday party. Meanwhile THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE icon Glenn Ford looks on, presumably three-sheets to the wind.

Said ending is even weirder because the screenwriters and producers sort of winged-it, making it up as they went along and settling on the face-pulling mania that currently serves as the final act.  The movie was quickly picked up by Columbia Pictures for distribution, the studio pushing it in its marketing materials as having “six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see”, a sensationalistic tagline that irked Dunning, who didn’t think the deaths were that weird. He was kind of right, as a few of the killings are simple throat-openings (though they are edited in such a way as to make them truly alarming and grim), but the rest ARE indeed wild, including death by barbell (a rough scene to watch) and murder-by-shish-kebob, the later re-staged for the film’s famous poster.  But the killings aren’t the main thrust of the movie. It’s eminently watchable and engrossing and has a twisted whodunit mystery at its core, with red herrings galore, plus a deranged “mad science” subplot and a pack of really good performances (for this sort of film) from its leads.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME was first released in pan-scan on VHS by Columbia in its original theatrical cut and later, on DVD with a new (and terrible) score. Later DVD and Blu-ray releases restored the Lance Rubin and Bo Harwood music as does this latest Blu-ray release via Mill Creek Entertainment. Like many of Mill Creek’s new releases, there’s zero in the way of special features here, the main menu offering you a single option to select the film itself to play. But that’s just fine as the film looks fantastic in 1.85: 1 HD widescreen and again, is uncut. Best of all, the movie comes packaged in one of Mill Creek’s new “retro VHS” slipcases, a Walmart promotion that makes this one instantly collectible. While not as famous as other stab-happy 80’s horror films of the period, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is a solid, serpentine and often wonderfully silly vintage genre entertainment.