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The killer elite
"Six of the most bizarre deaths you'll ever see" lied the posters for J Lee Thompson's HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. Gort revisits an 80s slasher that he once shrugged off but really responded to this time around, especially looking as good as it does on Indicator's new Blu-ray.
 

Back in the early 1980s, I sat through an awful lot of slasher movies. It's not that I was a particularly ardent fan, it's just that I've had a passion for horror since I was a kid, and back then the slasher movie waterfall was in full flow. Halloween had left us reeling and both it and Friday the 13th had proved so successful that almost everyone wanted a piece of this potentially profitable pie. Seemingly every week there was at least one new such horror flick playing at one of the local cinemas, and I'd pay up and go see whatever was playing, no matter how enthusiastic or scathing the reviews. But surprising though it may seem, I do have standards, and the slasher sub-genre really did throw up some dross. Their titles and tag-lines were also a gift to reviewers who still regarded horror as something they wouldn't feed to their dog. I remember the 1979 Don't Go in the House prompting more than one wag to respond, "Don't go in the cinema." And then there was Happy Birthday to Me, one of whose taglines was "Pray you're not invited." Want to guess what some hostile reviewers did with that? A more famous and controversial tagline was, "Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see," which seemed to play into the hands of those who claimed these films were glamorising the act of violent murder by making it their raison d'être.

I'd seen quite a few of these films by the time I got to Happy Birthday to Me, which I watched in an almost empty cinema with grumpy disinterest until we got to the climax, which I thought was a grotesque belter. Years later the only thing I could remember about the film was that finale. Even the poster of some poor fool staring wide-eyed in terror as a shish kebab is poised to be plunged into his gaping mouth rang no significant bells. Thus, when Indicator announced that they were releasing the film on Blu-ray (well, dual format, but it's the Blu-ray we're looking at here) I let slip a wry smile, one that fell sharply at the corners when I was asked to review it. Thanks a lot. Ah well, I figured, maybe it's not quite as naff as I disremember. As it happens, it's not. Indeed, it's a hell of a lot better than my above cursory dismissal would seem to suggest.

The Top Ten

A few wayward souls might try to convince you that Happy Birthday to Me is not actually a slasher movie at all, and if that's what you've heard then ponder on this. Virginia Wainwright is a pretty but psychologically delicate student at a private academy who is part of an elite clique that pompously calls itself the Crawford Top Ten. I hate them already. Virginia has returned to school after a four-year break (yet somehow looks younger than all of her classmates) after being in a serious accident whose effects required her to undergo regenerative brain surgery. She appears to be readjusting rather well to normal life, but her recovery stalls when the members of the Top Ten start disappearing. What she and the others are initially unaware of is that they are all being violently murdered by an unidentified killer.

The elements are all here, from the virile teen protagonists who are individually stalked and killed by a mysterious assailant, to the creative manner in which some of them are dispatched and the titular significance of a celebrated calendar date (see also Halloween, Friday the 13th, April Fool's Day, Prom Night, Graduation Day, My Bloody Valentine et al). The first victim even does that dopey horror thing of breaking free from her attacker and instead of running like Steve Austin on steroids gets a mere few yards then stops and looks worriedly around like she's waiting for the killer to walk up and cut her throat with a razor. Which is exactly what happens. Later, one of the guys is bench pressing weights and finds himself about to be crushed by his own overloaded barbell, which he struggles manfully and dangerously to hold above his chest instead of throwing his arms back and letting the weights crash noisily but safely to the floor. It'd hurt, but it wouldn't smash his ribs to smithereens. I rest my case. Happy Birthday to Me is a slasher movie all right. But it's also something more, enough to stand it apart from the hoard of similarly themed horror flicks of the period.

First up, there's nothing cheapjack about the film itself, which looks more like a studio production than an albeit modestly budgeted indie. And the director was none other than J. Lee Thompson, and if that name rings no bells (shame on you!) then you might want to check out Ice Cold in Alex, North West Frontier and The Guns of Navarone. He also directed the original Cape Fear, so he clearly knows a thing or two about shaping characters and building tension. But even he's only as good as the script he's given to work with and the dialogue doesn't exactly sparkle, while the kids who deliver it appear to have been partly sourced from the stock teen horror catalogue. Prominent on this score are the resident sporty jocks and the spectacled nerd, the sort of geeky outsider that quickly became a required component of horror movie high school groups, the members of which wouldn't touch these guys with the dirtiest barge pole in the real world equivalent. That said, how many North American films can you think of where the jocks get to pull off that all-important, game-winning point by scoring a last-second goal in a football match (and we're talking the football the rest of the world plays with its feet, not the one that Americans play with their hands)? Even the group nerd plays to expectations here by being having to tend goal, then confounds them by saving a crucial penalty.

The killer approaches

The killer, on the other hand, has a distinct whiff of giallo in the dark clothing and leather gloves donned for executing teens, though if you know your giallo movies you'll also be aware that when the killer's face is kept from view, we know it's going to be someone we've already met. That said, this is acknowledged early on by the response of the victims-to-be to the approach of their assassin, whom they greet not with screams of terror but a casual, "oh, it's you." There are a number of attempts to misdirect us over the killer's identity, but almost all are ham-fisted enough to make it obvious that we are being misdirected, but Thompson and his incomplete script (the ending was devised long after shooting has started) still kick against tradition by revealing who it is a good half-hour before the film is scheduled to end. This not only undercuts any audience second-guessing, it also transforms the nature of all subsequent encounters, as we go from wondering if someone will be targeted to wondering when and how the individual they are unknowingly socialising with will dispatch them.

Happy Birthday to Me also differs from its more scurrilous contemporaries in the role that these murders play in the narrative. Despite an advertising campaign that suggests the opposite, here it's not all about the spectacle of the kill, and the character scenes that carry the film from one death to the next are a lot more substantial than the usual tawdry filler. Yes, too much time is spent pushing us to suspect the wrong people, but we also get to learn a little more about Virginia and her relationship with her father (played by Lawrence Dane, the corporate bad guy from David Cronenberg's Scanners) and her psychiatrist Dr. Faraday (Glenn Ford of 3:10 to Yuma fame). We're also treated to a series of increasingly revealing flashbacks featuring Virginia's brain surgery (eek!) and the events that led to her having to have it in the first place. It all builds to a climax of triumphant grotesque that then pushes its luck with an outrageous twist that doesn't stand up to any sort of scrutiny but which paves the way for a darkly ironic ending.

A worrying discovery

Coming back to the film after such a long gap proved an unexpectedly pleasant experience. Complaints about its length do tend to hold water, as if the character filler and sometimes plodding attempts to misdirect us were tightened then the film would probably be closer to the 90-minute slasher norm instead of the weighty 110 minutes it actually runs for. But in spite of a sprinkling of preposterous moments and a cast of characters who are seriously in need of smack or two, Happy Birthday to Me is a lively and enjoyable melding of whodunit thriller, psychological drama and slasher horror. Melissa Sue Anderson, fresh from TV's horribly wholesome Little House on the Prairie, does well as the troubled Virginia (especially towards the end), and the plot is convoluted enough to push the limits of your recall come the final act. Occasionally daft, not big on credibility, and stronger on its psychological drama than its horror, Happy Birthday to Me is still a good deal of technically polished fun, with a likeable young lead and a delicious and cheerily demented denouement.

sound and vision

An absolutely spanking 1.85:1 transfer that gorgeously showcases the film's higher-than average production values and cinematographer Miklós Lente's sometimes lively use of colour and clarity-friendly night-time lighting (it's always great to watch a film that was shot night-for-night but lit so we can actually see what's going on). The image is consistently sharp and the level of detail really justifies the HD transfer, while the contrast balance delivers the solid blacks without punishing the shadows (props again to Lente for his lighting). If there's a dust spot anywhere I must have missed it.

Virginia and her mother

The original mono soundtrack reproduced here in Linear PCM 1.0 format and is clear and clean, but you can also watch the film with a DTS-HD 5.1 surround track, which is sonically livelier, boasts a far beefier bass response and has been properly remixed to direct effects and music across the front speakers. There's not a huge amount going on at the back, but this is still a fine track.

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are also available.

extra features

Alternative Soundtrack
Select this and you can watch the film with an alternative music track that was included on the film's 2004 DVD release, which replaces Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin's rather effective orchestral score with electronic chords and pings and godawful disco music.

Audio Commentary
Four members of the horror podcast The Hysteria Continues – namely Justin Kerswell, Erik Threlfall, Joseph Henson and Nathan Johnson – deliver a lively and enjoyable blend of trivia and opinion on the film and its production. Kicking off with recollections of their first viewing, they take us on a scene-by-scene trip through the film with sometimes substantial asides to discuss the actors, the director, the marketing campaign and more. They're all fond of the film but are not above picking the odd hole or taking the piss when things don't quite make sense. Really good stuff.

Virginia has a flashback

Theatrical Trailer (1:16)
A trailer that promises "six of them will die in the most bizarre ways you'll ever see." Ever? Are you sure? I liked the image of a birthday cake being cut with a felling axe, however.

In US TV Spot #1 (1:01) the kids are being killed in "the most bizarre ways imaginable." You do know who you're talking to, right? US TV Spot #2 (0:30) is a cut down version of the same, as is US TV Spot #3 (0:30). The UK TV Spot is along the same lines but with a touch more ham to the horror narration.

Image Gallery
A sizeable collection of production stills and press materials, which can be manually advanced so you can dwell on your favourites. I particularly liked the suggestions for promoting the film at cinema screenings. There was none of that going on when I first saw the film. Pity.

Booklet
Another handsomely produced glossy booklet from Indicator, this one opens with a double-page spread of the film's main credits, which is followed by an article on director J. Lee Thompson and the making of the movie, drawn in part from Columbia's original press kit. After this is something I always enjoy, a collection of quotes from contemporary reviews, none of which are exactly glowing (even the best horror movies were still being snottily reviewed by mainstream critics back then). Rounding things off is a piece on how the film was promoted, which is easier to read than the entries in the on-disc stills gallery.

summary

I never thought I'd say this before re-viewing the film, but I'll now happily admit that Happy Birthday to Me is one of the better slasher movies from the early 1980s. It certainly has more substance than the genre norm, and while the killings themselves are not the showpiece scenes the promotional material made them out to be, or "six of the most bizarre deaths you'll ever see," the joyous grand guignol of the climax makes that easy to forgive. The film looks lovely on Indicator's Blu-ray (it looks great on the DVD in the set too) and the commentary and booklet are both grade-A extras. Recommended.

Happy Birthday to Me dual format
Happy Birthday to Me

USA 1981
110 mins
directed by
J. Lee Thompson
produced by
John Dunning
written by
John C.W. Saxton
Peter Jobin
Timothy Bond
cinematography
Miklós Lente
editing
Debra Karen
music
Bo Harwood
Lance Rubin
production design
Earl Preston
starring
Melissa Sue Anderson
Glenn Ford
Lawrence Dane
Sharon Acker
Frances Hyland
Tracey Bregman

disc details
region B
video
1.85:1
sound
LPCM 1.0 mono
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH )optional)
extras
Commentary by The Hysteria Continues
Trailer
TV Spots
Image gallery
Booklet
distributor
Indicator
release date
12 December 2016
review posted
11 December 2016

See all of Gort's reviews