Back in the heady days of the early-1980s, horror was experiencing a renaissance. A pair of little movies named Halloween and Friday the 13th had proved that horror marketed to teens meant big bucks, and soon a slate of holiday-themed slash-fests began gracing screens across the country. From My Bloody Valentine to Prom Night, if the date had nation-wide, positive significance, some power-tool-wielding maniac was sure to ruin it. But no date has more significance to so many people than their own birthday, and Happy Birthday To Me was the inevitable output.
With awesomely high-concept, lurid poster art and a tag-line that - even in 1981 - they couldn't really deliver; "six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see," Happy Birthday had only one true selling point - Mary Ingalls herself, Melissa Sue Anderson as the headliner! Would the nubile hottie from Walnut Grove be injured or killed on screen? Would she instead kill someone? Would she ... gasp ... take a relaxing shower!? Of course, I won't spoil any surprises for you, but suffice it to say that regardless of any probable Anderson hanky-panky, Happy Birthday skirts most slasher movie clichés for a take that hearkens back to the giallo source. In other words, it's confusing, illogical and filled with more style than substance or scares.
Virginia Wainwright (Anderson) reenters college life after a near-fatal car accident. Mixing it up with pretentious, rich snobs - with which 'Ginny', at least in monetary terms, certainly can claim an allegiance - our heroine does the usual things. She dates a dork, rebuffs a stalker-like freak, and acts like a buffoon in the local watering hole. And yet something's not right, as her friends and lovers commence to getting knocked off by a black-gloved killer. Of course after each incisive incident, every suspicious man jack - even Ginny herself - shows up nearby wearing black leather gloves. Who could the murderer be?
Not being the sharpest pair of hedge clippers in the shed, I follow the obvious clues, winding up literally dumbfounded by movie's end. You might be too, as slavish attention to red herrings seemingly leaves any genuine clues or motivations on the sideline. Meanwhile on the field, autumnal collegiate atmosphere creates a dreamy air that lulls the viewer into a brandy-by-fireside somnolence that adds some small kick to evenly-spaced, episodic kill scenes. Rather than being bizarre, our offings are pretty tame and standard. The movie poster shish-kebab tracheotomy and a weightlifting 'accident' are as bizarre as these murders get, and though sometimes brutal, such acts of violence lack suspense.
Mystery comes in who-dunnit form, certainly, but with prurience aside, it's down to performances; Anderson, and legendary actor Glenn Ford (as her whack-job doctor) provide the best, while all other college kids wind up delineated with slasher-average smarm.
Happy Birthday To Me promises six bizarre murders. It delivers six murders, though the majority aren't all that bizarre. Less a teen-kill cash-in than an '80s update of the giallo formula, Happy Birthday touts plenty of style, but lacks the nasty verve of movies like Halloween or F13. Still, with a fine performance from the fine Melissa Sue Anderson, and lots of fun, dead-college-kid clichés, Happy Birthday delivers plenty of nostalgia value for aging horror aficionados.