Happy Canada Day! To celebrate the nation’s birthday, we’re re-visiting The Great White North’s contribution to the ‘Golden Era’ of slasher horror. Most horror fans know the original My Bloody Valentine was a Canadian export. Shortly after My Bloody Valentine scared horror fans, another Canadian slasher made its way to theaters – Happy Birthday To Me. Today, slasher fans fondly regard My Bloody Valentine as an underrated classic. In contrast, Happy Birthday To Me hasn’t enjoyed the same level of critical re-evaluation. Even the 2000’s remake craze skipped over it. However, the psychological slasher actually performed better at the box office. And how many slasher movies can boast a ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood star, a pedigree director, and a cast member from Little House on the Prairie?
At the Crawford Academy high school, they are the ‘Top 10’ – the social elite of the student body. After surviving a car accident that took her mother’s life, Virginia Wainwright still struggles to find some normalcy with her friends. With no memories of what happened during the accident, Virginia’s road to recovery only grows more difficult. Her psychiatrist, Dr Faraday, performed experimental brain surgery on her. Now she’s suffering blackouts and slowly recovering pieces of the accident. And one by one, her friends in the ‘Top 10’ start disappearing. Someone is hunting down Crawford’s finest, and Virginia slowly questions whether she may be the killer.
Happy Birthday To Me Promised ‘Six of the Most Bizarre Murders You Will Ever See’
In 1981, the slasher sub-genre, with clear narrative structures, was in its infancy. Not surprisingly then, Happy Birthday To Me was an odd mix of styles. Though its marketing promised another Friday the 13th, director J Lee Thompson made a psychological thriller. As a result, Happy Birthday To Me sometimes feels like two different movies. Mystery and red herrings are traditional story elements in slasher movies. Nonetheless, the red herrings here feel clumsy for the thriller Thompson intended. Moreover, Happy Birthday To Me’s psychological intrigue pushes the movie to nearly two hours. Few slasher movies can sustain that length. The running time and uneven style also detracts from suspense and scares, which is a disappointing after a strong opening. Arguably, however, the slasher’s twist ending is the worst offender. No detective work will help you see it coming. This is a ‘tacked on’ twist that needs the killer to explain.
Moreover, Happy Birthday To Me’s psychological intrigue pushes the movie to nearly two hours. Few slasher movies can sustain that length.
Fortunately, Happy Birthday To Me does deliver on its marketing promises. Technically, the killings lack the brutality and explicit gore of My Bloody Valentine or The Prowler. Still there’s a creativity to the death scenes that embody what horror fans expect of slasher movies. Courtesy of the movie’s now infamous poster, the shish kabob-to-the face scene is one of the more innovative deaths you’ll find in this sort of horror movie. And Thompson executes it well, dragging out the tension just enough. Speaking of tension, the killer stacking on weights to a bench press lift will have you considering Pilates or yoga. If the deaths lack gore, Thompson compensates with his ability to make the inevitable feel suspenseful. It’s just too bad that suspense was missing from the rest of the movie.
Happy Birthday To Me Invited Several Familiar Faces to the Party
Anyone who grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s – particularly Canadians – will recognize several of the supporting cast members. Not one, but two, alum from summer camp cult classic Meatballs show up in Happy Birthday To Me. Yes, Jack Blum, the lovable ‘Spaz’ from Meatballs, plays group weirdo, ‘Alfred’. Because we loved ‘Spaz’ so much, we’ll ignore the fact that the ‘Top 10’ would never include someone like an ‘Alfred’. We’re just happy to have Jack Blum in the movie. For American soap opera fans, The Young and the Restless’ Tracey E Bergman plays a bigger than expected role. Canadian cinephiles may be to pick out a few more familiar movie and television faces.
Quite frankly, Anderson’s pretty good in a role that’s kind of like her ‘Mary Ingalls’ character with a brain injury.
Somehow Happy Birthday To Me managed to net Hollywood legend Glenn Ford. Whether Ford knew what kind of movie he was starring in is difficult to tell – like the rest of the cast, he plays it pretty straight. And maybe she was looking to break out from her squeaky clean image, but even Little House on the Prairie’s Melissa Sue Anderson turns up in the lead role. Quite frankly, Anderson’s pretty good in a role that’s kind of like her ‘Mary Ingalls’ character with a brain injury. Overall, the cast proves to be a big selling point for this slasher. Everyone elevates the material above what one might have expected.
Happy Birthday To Me Lacks Focus, But Still a Fun 80’s B-Level Slasher
It’s not hard to see why Happy Birthday to Me has earned cult credibility among slasher fans. With the ‘Golden Era of the Slasher’ still in its early phases, the sub-genre and its ‘rules’ weren’t set in stone. And the Canadian slasher’s ‘and then there were none‘ narrative alongside its creative death scenes likely influenced movies that followed it, albeit not to the extent of Friday the 13th. Notwithstanding its bright spots, Happy Birthday to Me is still a strange hybrid of a horror movie. On the one hand, its slasher elements and ridiculous ending sabotage Thompson’s pretensions of making a serious psychological thriller. But the psycho-melodrama drags the movie’s runtime to an unwieldy hour and 50 minute, thereby killing much of the suspense. Yet despite these limitations, Happy Birthday to Me is still one of the better ‘hidden gems’ from the era.