Post Halloween, the slasher was the go-to low budget money maker. The formula is so simple (young people, bloody death, shadowy locations) and the effect is so palpable that even if we’re long past the hey-day, slashers have really never stopped. Halloween even gave the obvious holiday formula – pick some day with obvious festive trappings, subvert them, instant hook. A murderous birthday party is almost as obvious as a masked killer on a day everyone is wearing masks.
But Happy Birthday to Me (1981) is so overstuffed, obtuse, and overlong that it does everything it can to obscure it’s potential. Even the concept of the birthday party doesn’t really come into focus until the second hour of the movie.
The film opens, in grand slasher tradition, with an initial murder. A girl is walking from school to go to a pub where her friends are all drinking. On the way, she’s stopped by the school… dean? Principal? It’s difficult to tell exactly what Claremont Academy is supposed to be, since it seems to be a high school and a college, with students who all look way too old to be going to school.
Whatever. The cute girl goes to her car, and is attacked by an assailant in the backseat, nearly choked to death… but she escapes! And then walks 10 feet away and stops to be attacked again. And escapes! To encounter another unexpected person. “Oh, it’s you,” she says… and whoever “you” is cuts her throat.
Not great, but it establishes the murderer must be one of that group of friends who hang out at the pub and make themselves a nuisance. There are 10 (now 9) of them, but they barely have any sense of characterization so don’t worry about being too concerned as their numbers dwindle.
The primary character is Virginia. She’s the only one with a backstory, which is so convoluted that it makes less and less sense as it becomes clearer. Her mother died in an accident, and she had to have brain surgery afterwards. Some experimental procedure was used to regrow parts of her brain. This seems like the central plot of a movie all by itself, but it’s just part of Happy Birthday to Me’s smorgasbord of nonsense.
Because there’s the weird member of the group, Alfred, who is one of their friends but also seems to resent every other human being on the planet. And Etienne, the French exchange student who sneaks into Virginia’s room to steal her unwashed panties. There might be a love triangle between some of the group, but what the hell it amounts to is unclear, because nothing is clear in this movie. It never has the focus or momentum of one of the better slasher movies. This lack undermines any sense of suspense the movie might have achieved.
The original poster touts “six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see.” Eh, maybe two of them are okay. There was a bizarre kind of arms race in the early slasher films to see who could tear up young flesh in the most bizarre and outrageous fashion. I think it’s worth noting, snobbishly, that Halloween, the best slasher movie ever, just had stabbings and strangulations. No gimmicks. Just actual suspense. Some of the most “creative” kills in Happy Birthday are underwhelming in execution.
What’s more interesting is some of the scenes and locations. There’s a scene where the Claremont 10 are all trying to jump a movable bridge that looks fairly good. A later motocross race is fun and exciting, with a real crowd. It’s the sort of thing that would be impossible for a modern low budget slasher movie.
Happy Birthday to Me has surprising production value. It has numerous locations and looks fun. It’s just boring. And goes on too long, almost two hours. And gets stupider and stupider as the film goes on. I like weird twists in movies. The left-field twist here makes negative sense. It negates much of the film that has come before and has no foundation.
There’s one gore scene in the film that has a real impact, and that’s Virginia’s brain surgery scene. It looks extremely realistic, graphic, and has a queasy reality that a lot of the “bizarre murders” do not.
Happy Birthday to Me was produced by John Dunning and Andre Link, who the same year produced My Bloody Valentine, which is one of my favorite early 80s slashers. That movie has a great sense of place, and suspenseful kills.
Happy Birthday to Me is a slog. The story makes less sense as it becomes clearer, and the explanations for its gaps get stupider and stupider. Some people might like the wild turn at the end, but to me it’s clear it was a Hail Mary to try for something interesting out of a dull morass of a film.
Happy Birthday to Me has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras include an audio commentary with co-screenwriter Timothy Bond, moderated by Daniel Kremer; “Sister Slasher” (10 mins) an interview with actress Tracey E. Bregman; and TV spots and a trailer for both this and other Kino Lorber horror films.