HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Produced by John Dunning & Andre Link
Written by John Saxton, Peter Jobin & Timothy Bond
Director of Photograpy Miklos Lente
Music by Bo Harwood & Lance Rubin
Cast: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Tracy Bregman & Matt Craven
1981/111 mins/Color/Dolby Stereo
1.85:1 anamorphic/English/USA/NTSC Region 1
Review from the Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment DVD
With the recent DVD releases of TERROR TRAIN (1980) and HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE (1980), we seem to be seeing a mini-renaissance in the early 80s slasher film. The 1981 thriller HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is now coming to DVD as well. And while three releases may not equal a revolution, it is certainly an interesting phenomenon.
"Little House on the Prairie" vet Melissa Sue Anderson stars in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME as Virginia "Ginny" Wainwright, a student at the exclusive Crawford Academy. (Which I'm fairly certain is a college, based on the school's size and the fact that some of the actors look as if they're in their late 30s.) Despite the fact that Ginny is fairly new to Crawford, she's already been accepted into the "Top 10", a tight-knit group of students who love to party together. The other members of the "Top 10" are: Ann (Tracey Bregman), Alfred (Jack Blum), Steve (Matt Craven), Maggie (Lenore Zann), Rudi (David Eisner), Amelia (Lisa Langlois), Ettiene (Michel-Rene Labelle), Greg (Richard Rebiere), and Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson). All seems well for these pampered students, until they begin to suddenly disappear one at a time. The police and school officials investigate, but can't find any clues. Meanwhile, Ginny, who's been seeing Dr. Faraday (Glenn Ford) for psychotherapy, begins to have flashbacks to a trauma that she suffered in the past.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME benefits from the presence of established actors Melissa Sue Anderson and Glenn Ford, as they bring an air of respectability to the production. Which is a good thing, as the rest of the movie is a convoluted mess which is hampered by a "Scooby-Doo" ending which would make Wayne & Garth blush. For starters, the "Top 10" may be a great name for a clique, but throwing ten characters at the audience makes things confusing, and their constant coupling and re-coupling may help to illustrate the morally ambiguity of this crowd, but it doesn't help to define the characters. These characters are given petty motivations which are meant to make them suspects, but they are never well-defined enough for us to truly mis-trust. Director J. Lee Thompson had made some classic films in the past, such as CAPE FEAR, but his old-school approach to HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME makes it pale in comparison to its peers. The film has very little violence (more on that in a moment) and none of the T&A which is usually associated with these films. One could applaud HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME for taking a "classier" approach to the slasher genre, but those accolade would only be viable if the film had anything else to offer, such as suspense. Whenever we see the black gloves of the killer (shade of Argento here), we know that someone is going to die, and thus any suspense is nullified. The fact that the killer is revealed an hour into the film doesn't help either. The movie an elaborate moto-cross scene and a soccer game, neither of which could have been all that cheap or easy to stage. Why didn't they nix these scenes and give us more action?
The only thing that keeps HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME moving along, and thus worth watching, are Ginny's flashbacks. We know that something unusual is going one with Ginny (she seems to be very afraid of a certain bridge in town) and the spacing of the flashbacks, each offering a little more of her story, are intriguing and help to combat the tedium of the rest of the film. As mentioned above, the ending is quite hokey and unbelievable, but the film's last moment is quite chilling and will stay with the viewer. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is not a very good movie, but it does offer a few things to help separate it from the slasher pack.
We can now celebrate HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME's debut on DVD courtesy of Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks pretty good, but it definitely shows the film's age. The image is sharp and shows only slight traces of grain, but it is quite dark at times, even during the daytime shots. The colors look good, although they are slightly washed out at times. (The group's trademark scarves go from purple to lite blue between scenes.) There is some noticeable artifacting in some scenes. The Dolby stereo audio track provides clear dialogue and sound effects, but the track is slightly off-balance, so the dialogue is softer than the other sounds at times. There are no extra features on the DVD. This release contains the original R-rated theatrical cut of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and doesn't include any of the more graphic murders which had to have been filmed if one goes by the photos which appeared in "Fangoria" back in 1981. Also, there has been a question of whether or not this DVD contains the original score for the film. Unfortunately, I can neither confirm nor deny this rumor, as this was my first time seeing the film and the reps at Columbia didn't get back to me about my inquiries, nor was I able to track down a VHS copy of the movie for a comparison. I can tell you that the haunting title track sung by Syreeta still graces the end-credits.
No points were allowed since there is no extras on the disc.
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Review by Mike Long. All Right Reserved. 2004. ©