Happy Birthday to Me typifies the horror genre prior to the self-reflection and irony that saturated the genre in the late '80s and '90s. A solid cast, decent acting, a well-written script, and relatively high production ... more »values result in a solid movie that is engaging on its own in addition to offering a glimpse into the history of '80s horror. The plot follows the rules of the genre (later parodied in such films as the Scream and Scary Movie series). A number of teenagers (played by actors who appear visibly older than their characters) from an elite prep school get into mischievous sexual situations fueled by alcohol and pot smoking. As teens start to disappear, murdered in a variety of violent ways, the film suggests a number of suspects. Is the killer the troubled star played by Melissa Sue Anderson who lost her overbearing, social-climbing mother in a car accident that she survived? Or is it the stern school mistress, the wacky, cool social clown, the social misfit, or none of the above? The film keeps you guessing until the final scene. Happy Birthday is a must-see for serious fans of the horror genre and this release is a solid digital mastering of the movie. Hardcore fans should note that the DVD release was not able to secure the rights to the original soundtrack so this version features an alternate soundtrack of largely nondescript '80s electronic music. --Brian Saltzman« less
"Hollywood is a tough town. All one need do is look at the career of J. Lee Thompson to prove this statement. This is the guy who directed "Cape Fear," not the remake with Nolte and De Niro but the frightening original with Peck and Mitchum. As the years went by things began to turn south for Thompson. Things got so bad that he ended up directing pictures for Cannon, the company that churned out all of those low budget, ultraconservative shoot 'em action films in the 1980s with the likes of Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, and Charles Bronson in the lead roles. In fact, Thompson and Bronson worked together on several of these potboilers, including "10 to Midnight," "Death Wish 4: The Crackdown," and "Kinjite: Forbidden Secrets." By the time Thompson passed away in 2002, only critics remembered him for his earlier, more important efforts. But Thompson made another crucial contribution to American film, specifically American horror films, when he lensed the 1981 slasher flick "Happy Birthday to Me." Why is this motion picture worth mentioning? Because it is one of the few giallo films made outside of Italy--and made by an Englishman.
Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) just wants to fit in at the Crawford Academy, one of those noxious private schools filled to the rafters with snotty rich kids. Ginny, as Virginia is known to her friends, does manage to worm her way into a group called "The Top 10," which apparently refers to the ten biggest jerks in school. It's a bit surprising Ginny pulled off this social coup since a car accident that claimed the life of her mother put her in the hospital with a brain injury. Only now is she slowly reintegrating herself back into society, with the occasional help of her psychiatrist Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) to see her through the rough patches. Ginny needs the shrink more than she knows because she's starting to experience a few bizarre problems. She sees things others don't see on occasion, and she wonders why a game involving members of the Top 10 jumping their cars over a drawbridge should bother her so much. Faraday tells her the trauma to her brain, and the subsequent operation, is causing a repression of memories. Not to worry, claims Faraday, as the memories will slowly surface and allow Ginny to recall what happened during the fatal accident.
There's a problem, though. Someone is going around killing off the members of the Top 10 in particularly heinous ways. From what we gather during the murder scenes, the killer is someone these kids know. Whoever it is, he or she has a deranged mind. For example, loudmouth troublemaker Steve (Matt Craven) expires when the killer shoves a shish kebob through his mouth. Hotshot motorcyclist Etienne (Michael Rene LaBelle) perishes when the killer tosses his scarf into the spinning wheel of his motorbike--unfortunately while Etienne is still wearing the scarf. Another scene reinforces the importance of always having a spotter while lifting weights. Both guys and girls in the Top 10 fall prey to this killer, and their bodies disappear soon after the awful deed is done. Potential suspects range from a disturbed member of the group with a penchant for gooey special effects to an administrator at the school who hates the Top Ten to...just about anyone, really. Virginia fears she might be the one behind the killings due to possible problems with her surgery. The truth, which comes in a denouement that is as unbelievable as it is massively entertaining and deranged, contains more twists and turns than a mountain highway.
I mentioned that Thompson's film classifies as a giallo. If you aren't familiar with the term, I'm about to assign some homework for you. The word "giallo" translates as "yellow" in Italian and refers to the color used for the covers of cheap mystery paperbacks sold in that country years ago. A giallo mystery as translated onto celluloid by the likes of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, and many others usually contained several crucial elements. First, the killer wears black gloves and black clothing. Second, we see the murder take place from the murderer's point of view. Third, the killings are imaginative and stylish, with lots of blood and lots of color thrown around. Fourth, nearly every character is a suspect. Fifth, red herrings pointing at said suspects abound. Every few minutes the viewer thinks he or she has the culprit nailed down only to discover seconds later another possible suspect. Sixth, a major character--either the murderer or the hero or heroine of the film--will experience flashbacks to an earlier event that provides clues to the murderers identity, or a reason why the killings are happening. "Happy Birthday to Me" contains nearly all of these elements. The conclusion to Thompson's film is so giallo that Dario Argento would weep with joy if he ever saw it. Go watch some gialli and compare.
As a cursory examination of the reviews pertaining to the DVD version of this film will show, the studio releasing the disc decided to cut corners by replacing the original score with a cheesy dance soundtrack. Worse, the DVD cover resembles in no way, shape, or form the original shish kebob in the mouth movie poster. Even worse, the only extras on the disc consist of trailers for other films, namely "Identity," "I Know What You Did Last Summer," and "Resident Evil: Apocalypse." While I never saw the film before watching the DVD, I do remember the creepy television spots for the movie and would have liked to see them on the disc. I enjoyed the movie a lot, but I'm going to fall in line with my fellow horror fans and give the DVD three stars due to these problems. No studio should EVER mess around with a film's original content. Watch with caution.
Pray you're not invited to the party...
cookieman108 | Inside the jar... | 12/02/2004
(2 out of 5 stars)
"If you've seen this film before, and recently purchased the DVD release, popped it into your player, and got the creeping feeling of something being not quite right, you're not alone... the movie on this disc is not the same as when originally released as the studio releasing this film to DVD has changed some of the musical scoring (substituting an inappropriate disco-like score in some parts)...I'm having the strangest sense of déjà vu...oh wait, a similar thing was done on the recent DVD release of Return of the Living Dead II (different studio). Seems kind of sad that for what has to be one of the biggest markets for DVDs (the United States), you'd think companies could see fit to try and preserve the original elements of a film, rather than changing it (for whatever reason), releasing it (without any warnings or notice of change on the packaging), and slapping a hefty price tag on the box (this DVD is one of the more expensive one's I've seen in awhile).
Happy Birthday to Me (1981), directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown), stars Little House on the Prairie's own Melissa Sue Anderson in one of her few film appearances (she mostly works in the medium of television). Also appearing is Glenn Ford (Blackboard Jungle), Lawrence Dane (Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman) along with small group of young actors, some I've seen before (Jack Blum and Matt Craven both appeared in Meatballs, as the characters Spaz and Hardware, respectively, and Lenore Zann appeared in a handful of films, including another 80's slasher film Visiting Hours, before transitioning to television, now earning a living doing mostly voiceover work), and some I haven't (I see some actors credits include having appeared in various soap operas since the film, but since I have a job I don't have the opportunity to experience the wonderment that is daytime TV).
Anderson plays Virginia `Ginny' Wainwright, a young woman, returning to the small town of Crawford, along with her father, after a somewhat mysterious absence. She attends the prestigious Crawford Academy, a local private school, and being academically gifted, soon finds herself included among the Top Ten, a cliquish group that seem to do just about everything together...INCLUDING DYING! Ooops, sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself...anyway, it seems Ginny's absence has something to do with a recent psychologically and/or physically damaging incident, one she's now repressing, but has been getting help from her shrink, Dr. David Faraday (Ford). As the memories begin to free themselves from Ginny's subconscious mental morass, her classmates begin suffering strange and horrible deaths (death by motorcycle, crushing weights, and shis-kabob) at the hands of someone they know (we often get the view of the killer's perspective, with the intended, unassuming victim making some kind of statement like, `oh, it's you'). The deaths are very real, but the bodies always seem to disappear, leading police to believe the victims are just missing, and not necessarily dead. Who is killing off Crawford's top students and why?
First off, I think the students portrayed here were supposed to be in college, but they suffered from the `Beverly Hills 90212' syndrome, a common affliction in the world of Hollywood, in that the actors looked a bit older than the characters they were supposed to be playing. That said, I think most everyone in the film did a pretty good job. The characters, while mostly there as fodder, didn't appear stupid and transparent, as is common in many of the slasher films I've seen, so credit does go to the writers and the director. And while the movie does fall squarely within the slasher film genre of the time, it seems to try and elevate itself above many films in the genre by providing a stronger story, rather than just killing (pardon the pun) time between the murders. In fact, the film reminded me a lot of those Bette Davis or even Joan Crawford horror films of the early to mid 60's (director Thompson's extensive experience in film shows through in this aspect), except that Melissa Sue Anderson is no Davis or Crawford. The various `red herrings' thrown around seemed a little clunky, especially since the clues (there were a few, looking back now) pointing towards the identity of the murderer were really vague and not very helpful. The various murders were pretty spectacular (a few of these scenes were originally cut before theatrical release to satisfy the ratings board...too bad they couldn't have gathered the parts cut out, extending these scenes, releasing an unrated version). The film does move along well, creating some suspenseful moments, but I felt the ending, while definitely over the top and worth sticking around for, ultimately hurt the movie, as it heaps a multitude of scenarios before spilling its' guts (another pun), ultimately asking the viewer to accept quite a bit when the killer's true identity is revealed.
The wide screen anamorphic print (1:85:1) provided on this DVD does look pretty good, and the audio (Dolby Digital 1.0) is clear for the most part. Special features are few, but included in the case is a reproduction of the original poster art (the thrown together DVD cover art really stinks...why is the girl's eye glowing? Is she possessed by a demon? There's nothing like that in the film). Also included are trailers for some other Columbia releases like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Identity, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, but not one for this film. All in all, I would have been willing to give 3 ½ or four stars for this release, had the studio not neglected its' audience by plugging in a shoddy musical score and found a way to keep it intact as it was originally released. Subsequently, I can only go as high as 2 stars...and that's too bad...
Because of the bizarre nature of this birthday party, pray y
R. Pepper | Los Angeles | 07/22/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"One of the best slashers to come out of the early 80's makes its way onto DVD for the first time with the original scored music! Actually, Happy Birthday to Me was more than just a slasher. It was a psychological thriller/mystery with slasher tendencies mixed in. What made it stand out was that it came across as being more sophisticated and classy than many other films from the slasher era. For one, it had an Oscar nominated director (J. Lee Thompson, Cape Fear), respected veteran actor Glenn Ford and great acting by our leading lady Melissa Sue Anderson who plays Ginny (riding off her Little House on the Prairie fame). Other notable supporting roles by Sharon Acker as Ginny's mother, Tracey E. Bregman as best friend Ann and Frances Hyland as the head of Crawford Academy. As most people know by now, Columbia (Sony) released the film in 2004 with an altered music score and the worst DVD cover art you could possibly imagine. And this film deserves so much better than that. Music is so important in films because it sets the entire tone of the film. When Sony released the DVD with an upbeat, pop-ish number instead of the creepy, scored version we were all familiar with, it was unspeakable and quite frankly unwatchable. Anchor Bay who has a reputation for releasing popular horror films from the slasher golden age has corrected all the mistakes that Sony made with this new release. I've heard that a remake of this film is in the works to be presented in 3-D like the recent My Bloody Valentine. The original MBV shared the same producer's as this film. One severely underrated horror film still remains unreleased on DVD and that film is Curtains, also produced out of Canada. Perhaps Anchor Bay will be the saving grace for that film as well. As for Happy Birthday to Me, it ranks right up there with the best of them. It has a good story, character development, plot twists, suspense, creepy music and a surprise ending you won't see coming. Much too intelligent for its time when slashers were all too common and disposable. Enjoy!
From the official press release:
It's time to blow out the candles and sharpen the shish-kebab spears, because the classic 1980s' slasher favorite Happy Birthday to Me is coming to DVD, courtesy Anchor Bay Entertainment. Street date is October 13, 2009, with a pre-book date of September 10, 2009 and a festive SRP of $14.98.
This edition of the film, however, has something missing from the previous DVD release does not - the film's haunting orchestral score, as composed by Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin, which was NOT included on the first DVD release and which fans have been clamoring for.
It is yet another example of why Anchor Bay Entertainment is the undisputed leader in cult and classic horror home entertainment - they give the fans what they want.
Happy Birthday to Me was directed by Academy Award® nominee J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, 10 to Midnight, Murphy's Law) and stars Emmy Award® nominee Melissa Sue Anderson ("Little House on the Prairie," "Midnight Offerings") and Golden Globe Award® winner and Hollywood legend Glenn Ford (3:10 to Yuma, Blackboard Jungle, The Big Heat, Superman), along with such familiar co-stars as Lawrence Dane (Scanners, Of Unknown Origin, Bride of Chucky), Daytime Emmy Award® winner Tracy Bregman ("The Bold and the Beautiful," "The Young and the Restless") and Matt Craven (Public Enemies, Crimson Tide, Jacob's Ladder).
Welcome to upscale Crawford Academy, where everybody - particularly new student Ginny Wainwright (Anderson) - wants to be a part of the school's most popular clique. But now, it seems that they're dying to get out, as a killer has been butchering the group's members, one by one. Could a deadly accident from Ginny's past be connected to the brutal killings? And as her 18th birthday approaches, will Ginny be the guest of honor at the most horrific party of all?
Part whodunit, part psychological thriller, part twisted black comedy and full-tilt, full-blooded shocker, the original theatrical ads for Happy Birthday to Me boasted "six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see!" -- and it delivered.
"Pure slasher fun from beginning to end," raved DVD Drive-In, while Arrow in the Head called the film "downright nasty ... a slit throat above the usual slasher flick!" Even the esteemed critic Vincent Canby of The New York Times had to admit: "The murders, which are the point of such a movie, are vividly demonstrated." In a special retrospective devoted to the film in Fangoria (Issue #238), author Caelum Vatnsdal wrote: "Never in the shadowy slasher-film world has the potent cocktail of gore, directorial competence, old-time Hollywood star power and pure `80s outlandishness offered by Happy Birthday to Me quite been equaled." So popular is the legacy of Happy Birthday to Me that is a remake is on the drawing (carving?) board -- and in 3-D, no less!
But for purists, there's only one Happy Birthday to Me -- and Anchor Bay Entertainment's ready to cut the cake and serve it up! "
Charles Javier | Brooklyn, N.Y. | 10/28/2004
(2 out of 5 stars)
"I, like every horror movie enthusiast, eagerly awaited the arrival of "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME" on DVD. After repeated viewings, I've grown to appreciate this early predecessor to Wes Craven's "SCREAM". That film gave absolutely no credit to this as being one of the rare horror films that redefined the many plot twists, in-jokes and even a few red herrings so popular now in this genre. Now, Columbia/TriStar did the unthinkable: they completely ditched the chilling Lance Rubin/Bo Harwood score in favor of a pointless, even cliched new score. How bad is it? They even play a mock-Olivia Newton-John song to run in the opening credits!!!
How dare they?! This film had one of the finest scores for any horror film and then some! Did Columbia/TriStar completely assume that we, the smart buying public, wouldn't notice? Or did they have so little faith in the buying power of this film, that they decided to take us for idiots!!
I accepted the cheesy "girl posing with a knife in the birthday cake" art on the cover because, by today's standards, the original 1980 cover design is a little too disturbing. (They at least had the good sense to include it in the DVD's case) But why in the sweet name of Peter, did they foul up a perfectly good score?! It almost makes the film unwatchable.
P.S. Anyone reading this, should start a letter campaign to Sony Pictures, demanding they release "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME" with the original score! Whose with me?"
matuszews409 | Pittsburgh, PA USA | 07/26/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I am so pumped for this DVD! Happy Birthday to Me is just so awesome and so fun to watch! Great acting and a great twist ending help make this one of my favorite 80's slashers... and the original score and cover art will just make it all the more better. I'll definitely be picking this up on Oct. 13th and you should too!"