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Aging much better than a freezer burnt, half eaten cake, Happy Birthday to Me (1981) stands out as one of the better ones from the golden era of slashers, when the major studios weren’t afraid to throw some blood soaked (Canadian) coin at a B level concept, and in the process giving it some A list icing.

The Canadian ties? Filmed in Montreal when tax credits were still flying fast and furious, Happy was one of Columbia Pictures early ‘80s ventures into the horror world. (Graduation Day, released the same year, was the breadwinner of the two.) Recruiting the Canadian producing juggernaut of Andre Link and John Dunning (David Cronenberg’s cohorts on his mid ‘70s output, Shivers and Rabid), Columbia was guaranteed a good return on their investment. Of course, the Canuck connection doesn’t stop there – the cast includes such faces of Canadiana as Lawrence Dane (Scanners), Jack Blum and Matt Craven (both Meatballs), and Lisa Langlois (Class of 1984). The film cost $3.5 million and brought in $10 million, keeping Columbia pleased and providing audiences with a classier (but no less goofy) slasher than was being churned out at the time.

What’s it aboot? Let’s blow out some candles. Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson – Little House on the Prairie) has returned to Crawford Academy after a horrible car accident four years prior. She’s part of the “Top Ten”, the popular clique at school, i.e. they all wear scarves and constantly make frivolous bets for money. Oh, and as a lovely nod to giallo, they mostly all don black leather gloves. (Because the killer does! And they want to throw you off the trail. Which they won’t, trust me.) Naturally, the members of the “Ten” start dropping off, and Ginny has flashbacks to her fateful accident, brought on as the result of experimental brain surgery performed by gratuitous American name actor Glenn Ford (Superman). As the bodies pile up, so do her memories of the crash. Which will unravel first – the mystery of the killer’s identity, or her mind?

That’s an important question, but the answer is moot. The filmmakers decided along the way that the trajectory of the story they had was too perfunctory; so for the finale they pull a Scooby Doo switcheroo, and provide us with a different solution. Now solution Eh is the most logical and sane – but solution B elevates Happy into WTF territory where it holds a hallowed perch to this very day.

Seriously – there are no clues, breadcrumbs or signposts. But really, that’s one more reason to love this film; it’s such a Hail Mary ending that you just have to applaud when it sails through the goal posts. And frankly, I wish more slashers had pulled the carpet out like this – you don’t feel cheated because, let’s be honest, are the emotional stakes that high? No, they’re not at all – but give full credit to veteran British director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone) for imbuing a sense of gravitas to the ridiculousness.

Thompson of course directed the original Cape Fear (1962), as well as the Conquest of, and The Battle for, the Planet of the Apes (1972 and ’73, respectively). He was itching to tackle this kind of film (probably due to its popularity), and takes it as seriously as he can with the hand he’s dealt. The script by John Saxton (Class of 1984), Peter Jobin, and Timothy Bond focuses on character rather than kills; and while we are treated to some mayhem (more on that in a moment), the writers spend most of their time on unraveling the mystery and Ginny’s plight. Now, this isn’t high Drama (we’re still dealing with gloved killers after all) but rather high Soap; the dating scene of the “Top Ten” takes up as much time as the murders.

Not that the script is afraid of marinating in the tropes of the day – one of my favorites is utilized, the Oh Hey It’s You. The killer, as in all good gialli and slashers, is known to the victims; as the death dealer enters the room, the unsuspecting soul smiles and utters the above phrase before meeting their demise. It’s the easiest way to establish the mystery and have the audience engage in solving the puzzle. It’s also the easiest way to lend an air of sophistication to the proceedings; an ersatz Agatha Christie move that never fails to class up the gin (or as it were, Ginny) joint.

Now the advertising game for this film was strong; billed as featuring “six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see”, with the infamous kebab poster, Happy delivers by half. Three of the murders are unusual, but all are entertaining if briefly glimpsed. Tom Burman (Cat People)’s makeup work is mostly saved for the birthday party, where the killer’s handiwork is displayed for all to see. By this time the MPAA was cracking down on the bloodshed, but Thompson gets his point across with a vigorous display of red whenever he has the chance (and word has it that he was personally throwing it around gleefully). Columbia was hoping for Friday the 13th numbers all the way from the ‘holiday’ title to the checklist of carnage on the artwork. It didn’t work as well as they wanted, but that was more to a growing indifference (theatrically anyway) to the already wobbly kneed sub genre.

Keeping the film on its feet is a cast that shows a little more care than is usually injected into this sort of fare. All of the above mentioned are strong actors who give grounded performances; the “Ten” are rich, self absorbed brats, but this crew manages to show some humanity behind the fancy cars and stuck up façade. A special shout out to Dane, who, showing his northern lineage, actually pronounces Calgary (my crib) properly! (It’s Cal-ga-REE, not Cal-GARY, for anyone planning on visiting me. Bring beer.) Anderson, taking time off from her waning TV days as Mary Ingalls, tries her best to shed her prim reputation; ironically, other than posing briefly in a bra, she displays more bravery as poor blind Mary on Little House, what with all the burning babies and the plague or whatever the hell else the fine folks of Walnut Grove endure that week. Anyway, she’s good here and holds down the fort. Ford was apparently a crankypants on set, but acts as a low key anchor for Ginny as her sympathetic doctor.

Happy Birthday to Me came at the right time in the horror cycle, right before fans really started rolling their eyes at knife wielding maniacs. At its over privileged best, it exudes the appearance of being smarter than the average stabathon.  And in the world of slashers, appearances can mean everything – especially if you want to make a good impression at the party.

Happy Birthday to Me is available on Blu-ray from Mill Creek as part of a Double Feature with When a Stranger Calls.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.