On a chilly fall night in 2003, I was living in a dormitory during my freshman year of college in a sleepy, little town. Since the main attractions in Rome, GA consist of not one, but two Wally Worlds and a movie theatre/bar combo that none of us were old enough to get into yet, we spent our weekends either traveling to Atlanta for concerts, clubs and general mischief or we stayed indoors watching whatever weird oddities we could find at the local Mom and Pop Rental Shack. This Friday night in question started off innocently enough, with me roaming the horror section in search of something that would be as equally outrageous as Sleepaway Camp, which we had watched a few days earlier. After a few minutes of browsing, I stumbled upon a VHS box that had a guy getting a shish kabob shoved through his mouth on the front cover and a tagline that read, “Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see!” The film in question: Happy Birthday To Me. The probability that I was going to take this home: 100%.
The film starts out with Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson) making her nightly trip to The Silent Woman Tavern, a pub near Crawford Academy, where she meets with the Top Ten (a group of the most popular students attending the school). In true slasher fashion, she’s dispatched right off the bat by a killer whose face cannot be seen; not unlike a giallo, only their hands and feet are visible throughout most of the film, following in the footsteps of well known horror hits such as Halloween and Friday The 13th.
Moments later, we’re introduced to the Top Nine as it were, who seem to be moderately concerned that Bernadette hasn’t shown up but quickly get over it and play a prank on a local lodger involving a mouse (soon after, we find out that the group is notorious for playing pranks, which explains why they weren’t concerned with their friend’s disappearance). The rest of the film shifts the focus on Virginia “Ginny” Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson of Little House on the Prairie fame), a member of the clique who has an on-call psychiatrist (Glenn Ford) who helps her deal with her repressed memories of brain surgery and a car crash. While she’s attempting to piece her life together, the rest of the Top Nine are murdered in, as the cover states, “bizarre” ways. All of this leads to a climax that was hailed as “a confusing mess” by my dorm neighbors but really, it isn’t a very difficult movie to figure out. In fact, the most puzzling aspect of the film isn’t the ending but rather how someone got Oscar-nominated director J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone) to direct a slasher flick!
Happy Birthday To Me is a fairly typical entry in the body-count horror sub-genre: the kids are mostly unlikable with one or two sympathetic characters thrown into the mix; the plot is simple but tries to overcomplicate its presentation to be “smart”; and body are shucked like ears of corn at a harvest festival. But, under Thompson’s direction, the film manages to look a bit more polished and less amateurish looking than most other 80s slasher flicks. And then, of course, there’s the ingenious death scenes – which is really what makes the film memorable – but out of respect for everyone who hasn’t managed to see it yet, I won’t spoil any of them.
Happy Birthday To Me originally arrived on DVD back in 2006 but its release was somewhat compromised. First off, the cover art was probably one of the worst Photoshop jobs I’ve ever seen in my life. Not only did it feature a girl with glowing eyes, but it also had the outline of a castle that could be seen through a window in the background, neither of which are in the actual film – the birthday cake and knife are safe from scrutiny, though. Luckily, after the cover art popped up online, Columbia included an insert with the film’s original poster after fans cried foul. But, perhaps the greatest sin was replacing the film’s original soundtrack with a disco-themed one. There are two plausible theories as to how this came about: one is that the studio didn’t want to pony up the money to buy the music rights so they replaced it with something cheaper. The other is that this new soundtrack was from a very early version of the film before it was rescored and Columbia just used the wrong one on accident. Although that might seem a bit far-fetched, the scenes do match up to the alternate soundtrack quite well, more so than other films which have been tampered with in the same way.
I’m happy to say that none of that matters anymore since Anchor Bay has rereleased the film with its theatrical soundtrack and used the original poster as the cover art for their DVD. And, on top of that, the DVD actually has the original theatrical trailer included, which was an omission that was but a minor sin on the original release. So, if you’ve never check out the film before, now is the time to grab this disc and check out Happy Birthday To Me in the way it was meant to be seen!