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.

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