Happy Birthday to Me stars Little House on the Prairie's Melissa Sue Anderson as Virginia Wainwright, the daughter of a wealthy energy exec and a new student at the prestigious Crawford Academy. She's part of a tightknit group dubbed the Top Ten, although as a series of disappearances rack up, that number starts growing smaller and smaller. No bodies have turned up, and investigators don't seem to have any leads. Is it the creepy kid with the home taxidermy kit, or could it be Virginia herself, prone to blackouts after suffering some severe head trauma?
Happy Birthday to Me isn't widely considered one of the better slashers to emerge from the early part of the 1980s, but I'll go against the grain and point to it as one of my personal favorites. The first 45 minutes are what really make the movie for me. It moves at a rapid clip, continually adding new victims to the body count, and even the downtime manages to be pretty interesting. The chase in the parking lot is one of the less inventive kills, but the way it strikes so suddenly and the length of the attack make for a great way to open a movie. Its reputation lies largely on the creative kills, which includes, among other things, crushing a bodybuilder with his weights (the best of the bunch, for my money), hedge clippers through the gut, feeding a head through motorcycle spokes, and the money shot, a metal shish kebob piercing straight through the head. Like many movies from the same time period, the really graphic footage was trimmed out at the behest of the MPAA, and unfortunately, none of it has been reinstated for this R-rated release. There's still a healthy amount of blood, and the make-up effects, briefly glimpsed though they may be, are pretty well-done. The gruesome brain surgery in particular still makes me squirm. Director J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear) certainly knows how to wring the most tension out of a scene. One of the best examples of this has Virginia getting ready to take a bath. For a bit of dramatic irony, the audience already knows someone's been skulking outside Virginia's house, and she enters her room to find the window unexpectedly open. As she changes clothes, she systematically (and unintentionally) opens every door and exposes every possible hiding place in the room, building an immense amount of suspense in the process since obviously someone's going to leap out and gut her.
Most slasher flicks have a tough time figuring out what to do between kills, but Happy Birthday to Me fills those moments pretty effectively. At least early on, those in-between sequences don't drag, and they gradually flesh out a couple different mysteries. There's the expected Whodunnit? element, of course, and the "hey, it's you!" dialogue from the victims indicate that the mostly-unseen killer is someone in their circle of friends. Happy Birthday to Me sets up several plausible suspects, particularly Virginia, who's clearly going to play a central role in what unfolds, although it's uncertain if she's going to turn out to be the heroine of the piece or its villain. Virginia really starts to take center-stage around 45 minutes in, and the pacing slows down considerably with that emphasis. Slasher subplots are usually just mindless filler, but Virginia's accident is more competently handled. There's a strong sense of "what's going on here, exactly?", but for a change of pace, it's because of a (mostly) well-thought-out mystery angle, not because of inept plotting. The fact that Virginia's trauma is worked out in reverse chronological order is intriguing as well. The more leisurely pace in the last hour of the film and its extended runtime don't make for quite as exciting a movie (most slashers run an hour and a half, almost to the minute; Happy Birthday to Me is twenty minutes longer than the norm and feels it), but its unconventional setup works to its advantage. Instead of waiting until the climax to answer "who?", that question is approached earlier and spends more time on the "why?". It all leads up to an ending that's completely absurd (further out there than April Fool's Day, and that's saying a lot) but still remarkably creepy. In fact, the final shot of Happy Birthday to Me is one of my favorite images from any slasher film. It's just a shame I have to wade through a ridiculously implausible climax and a fairly plodding hour to get there.
Video: The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen video is above average for a slasher of its vintage, featuring a respectable level of detail and sharpness. The strength of the palette and black levels varies somewhat from shot to shot, but both are generally fairly robust. I didn't spot any artifacting or edge haloes, and what little speckling is present remains light and unintrusive.
Audio: Happy Birthday to Me sports a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track, encoded at the usual bitrate of 192Kbps. The audio's passable, but it sounds harsh and sibilant, with some noticeable hiss present. Dialogue was infrequently difficult to discern, particularly the heavy accent of one of Virginia's doctors in an early flashback. Although the soundtrack may be passable in a technical sense, Columbia/Tri-Star has eviscerated the original score. Like the recently reviewed Return of the Living Dead Part II, the instrumentation has been replaced, in part with cheesy keyboards and a disco backbeat that sound more like the flipside of a Lipps Inc. 45 than a slasher score. Depending on the scene, the faceless, generic score sounds like it could have been lifted from any syndicated drama or sitcom. The Syretta title track is still intact, for anyone who's curious. There's a discussion on the DVD Talk forums for anyone interested in more detailed comments about the differences between the scores.
The DVD doesn't include any alternate soundtracks, but closed captions have been provided alongside subtitles in English, Japanese, and Spanish.
Supplements: There aren't any extras related to the movie itself -- just a few plugs for other Columbia/Tri-Star titles, including I Know What You Did Last Summer, Identity, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The DVD includes a set of static 16x9 menus and features twelve chapter stops.
I don't normally harp about cover art, but the original shish kebob poster art for Happy Birthday to Me is incredibly memorable and made a huge impression on me when I was young. Rather than use that artwork for the DVD cover, someone at Columbia/Tri-Star half-heartedly tossed together a generic, extremely low-rent cover featuring someone who wasn't even in the movie, and the gothic background and glowing yellow eyes indicate a supernatural element that's wholly not present. I can understand changing poster art in some cases -- Silver Bullet's text-heavy artwork, for instance, wouldn't translate well -- but Happy Birthday to Me's was great to begin with...and if it's a necessity to change the artwork, couldn't you replace it with something not quite so shitty? Oh well. At least an insert with the original art has been provided, and if slipped over the shoddy DVD cover, it could almost pass for the real thing. As another alternative, one of the talented folks on the DVD Talk forums is making a custom cover available for anyone who wants it.
Conclusion: Although it's disappointing that Columbia/Tri-Star chose not to release the movie with its original soundtrack and poster art, Happy Birthday to Me still remains one of my favorite slashers. An unrated release reincorporating some of the originally trimmed footage or at least a less flawed DVD would've garnered a much higher recommendation, but I'd still suggest giving Happy Birthday to Me a look.
Related Reviews: For a Canadian slasher double-feature, Happy Birthday to Me was assembled by some of the same folks behind My Bloody Valentine.