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Happy Birthday To Me (1981)

DVD Cover (Anchor Bay)
Genres:
Horror, Psychological Thriller, Slasher Film
Director:
J. Lee Thompson J. Lee Thompson
Starring:
Melissa Sue Anderson Melissa Sue Anderson
Glenn Ford Glenn Ford
Lawrence Dane Lawrence Dane
Sharon Acker Sharon Acker
Frances Hyland Frances Hyland

5.5 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Review by Chad
Added: January 24, 2010
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading the site for any length of time, but I love the horror genre. I also love all of the different "blends" of horror that have come and gone over the decades: I love the campy classics, I love the sleazy slashers, I love the grisly gornos, and I'm always happy to sit down with a thinking man's horror. I particularly enjoy a film that can mix together multiple aspects into one cohesive unit, but there is a limit to how much mixing should be done. That is a lesson that the filmmakers behind Happy Birthday to Me should have paid attention to.

Without treading into spoiler territory, the plot behind the film is fairly formulaic and breaks no new ground in the horror genre. Crawford University is the setting, a group of college kids known as the "Top Ten" are the heroes, and they spend their evenings drinking, smoking pot, and having plenty of premarital sex. Oh, and Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson), the newest member of the tenners, is attending counseling by way of Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) due to what would appear to be a bad case of amnesia and flashbacks involving her being a medical guinea pig (don't ask, it's never explained). Fairly standard stuff here, and it doesn't get much more original when a mysterious serial killer shows up and starts knocking the members of this little club off one by one. Throw in some red herrings, cut out the gore to appease the strict censors of the eighties, and tack on what is most likely the most convoluted twist ending of film history, and you have the film that I sat through on my birthday as some sort of sick present to myself.

Happy Birthday to Me is a two-hour film that is about an hour too long, and the biggest reasoning for this is the way that the film bounces back and forth between genres. Is it a slasher? A teen drama? A thriller? Mystery? It would be hard to narrow it down to just one of those, but there are certainly elements of each to be found. The problem here is that it's hard to get involved in any of it when it's bouncing back and forth so much: how can we get immersed in the fear and tension when this is interrupted by a scene that wouldn't seem out of place in the latest teen romance? This is to say nothing of the twist ending, because while it's a crying shame that this ending made it into the final cut of the film, it was the studios that requested this joke of a scene be inserted. The director's original vision would not have elevated the film above the mediocre level, but a lack of studio interference would have given me one less thing to complain about.

See, the problem with that ending is this: the film leading up to that final scene is dull, but to its credit, it does appear to be leading to something. We learn who the killer is, we find out the reasoning behind the killing spree, and then we get one hell of an excellent scene that would appear to be wrapping everything up. At this point, I was a little forgiving of the hours that had already passed by - they may not have been great or even particularly good, but this final scene was certainly something memorable and at least made the wait worthwhile. This scene is creepy as can be, and I literally felt a chill go up my spine when I saw it play out.

According to internet gossip, the writer's original script ended here and the credits should have rolled, but the studio wanted a twist since that was the cool thing to do back in the early eighties, so a twist they got and a reaming we received. "Did we tell you who the killer was?", they seem to say, followed by a "Sucker! It was actually this person, the person you never suspected because up until we came up with some bullshit history for them and a couple of handy flashbacks, we never considered them to be anything more than padding to the cast." I can't blame the writers for this colossal blunder, but I can't exactly give pity points when the final product did nothing less than piss me off... on my birthday, no less.

Aside from that, the film is mediocre as a rule and average in its brightest spots. The acting is acceptable enough by slasher standards, but by no means is it excellent. Even Glenn Ford appeared to be phoning it in during most of his scenes, while Melissa Sue Anderson is... well, she was a cute child actress and she can deliver a line, but there's a reason you probably didn't recognize her name. The gore is practically non-existent thanks to the censors who apparently had a field day while scrubbing away all of the red stuff, and again, the slow pacing makes a large chunk of the running time downright boring to sit through. There are some good shots on display here and it's readily obvious that J. Lee Thompson is a damned fine director, but I can't very well recommend the film on those merits alone.

Overall, I'm going to have to give this one a thumbs down. Eighties horror junkies may want to pick it up for that one scene (tip: stop the DVD player when the singing kicks in), but personally, I wish that I had just avoided this one altogether. 3/10.
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