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Happy Birthday To Me

1981, Starring Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Tracey Bergman. Directed by J. Lee Thompson (Cinepix).

Guest Review by Rhett Miller

With the one-two punch of Happy Birthday to Me and My Bloody Valentine, Cinepix co-founders Andr Link and John Dunning made quite a mark on the horror genre, producing two Canadian slasher films that stood out from the influx of Halloween imitations saturating the market both north and south of the 49th parallel. While My Bloody Valentine remains notable as the most Canadian of all slashers, Happy Birthday to Me is the most classical a surprisingly well-made and sophisticated picture, especially given the subject matter. With the Oscar-nominated J. Lee Thompson (Guns of Navarone) behind the camera and film noir mainstay Glenn Ford in front, Happy Birthday to Me is a veteran's take on an exhausted genre, and while that works for the film, those old sensibilities don't work as well in presenting a distinctly Canadian voice.

Both of Cinepix's 1981 forays into the slasher genre concern themselves with a tightly-knit group of young adults who are significantly reduced in number by the time the final credits roll in My Bloody Valentine, it's miners, and in Happy Birthday to Me, it's minors. Inside the Crawford Academy is a clique of students dubbed the "Top Ten." Known for their wealth, good looks and popularity, the group spends their time jumping the town drawbridge in their car, heading off to the dirt bike races and indulging in a slasher diet of sex and substance abuse. Their carefree times begin to get deathly serious however, when one of the female members goes missing, sidetracked by a date with some mysterious first-person camerawork sporting dark leather gloves. But who would want to murder a member of the prestigious Crawford Top Ten? Is it the awkward nerd nursing a broken heart, the prudish principal punishing youthful indifference, the overly-nice widowed father with a cloudy past, the overzealous doctor determined to protect his new medical technique--a bullseye had this been a Cronenberg film--or could it be our humble protagonist Virginia all along?

Let's get this party started: Like T.J. in My Bloody Valentine, who comes home after seeking his fortune in Western Canada, Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson, Little House on the Prairie) returns to Crawford Academy after several years only to find herself an outsider with her former friends in the Top Ten. Her absence can be attributed to her mother, a promiscuous drunk, who had a fatal car accident in which Virginia was severely brain damaged. Given the seriousness of the case, Virginia was forced to relocate for proper medical treatment of her amnesia provided by Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford), who employed a radical new surgical procedure on her. Initially, his methods appear to have worked, but as members of the Top Ten go missing, Virginia finds herself remembering more and more painful details from her past, and less and less of where she goes in the present. Her friends ask her about her mysterious excursions, and indeed we see them, but she is often unable to recollect them. Could her lack of memory be her way of masking her guilt, or is there a grander scheme in all this slasher mayhem?

Virginia may not be able to remember the murders, but the audience sure does. As the tagline states, Happy Birthday to Me features "six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see." This is somewhat of a cheat, since half those murders are fairly routine, but the three that stand out--deaths by shish kabob, bench press and motorcycle tire--still manage to surprise today. Even more bizarre though, is the Grand Guignol finale, which features the most macabre birthday party variant ever to grace slasher film lore. Happy Birthday to Me's shocking finale, long the subject of controversy, is one of the least predictable--as well as least probable--endings in the slasher canon, but curiously, the ending's lack of logic has only solidified the film's continuing popularity.

Notwithstanding Happy Birthday to Me's unconventional murders, the film is wholly classical in its structure. J. Lee Thompson shoots his scenes much the same as he did 1962's Cape Fear, with fluid camera movements, calculated transition points and lush cinematography. The film looks--and is acted--as if it were plucked out of the Studio Era. Despite reports of on-set troubles, 1950s screen icon Glenn Ford gives one of those hammy old-man-knows-best performances, and Sharon Acker is so over-the-top with her drunken familial melodrama that she may as well be in a Douglas Sirk film. If old-school production and acting sounds out-of-place in a teen horror flick, then consider Happy Birthday to Me as an example of what a slasher film would look like circa 1955.

Not only does Happy Birthday to Me have the look and feel of an aged Studio Era film, but it also addresses its Canadian roots with a similar archaic temperament. Instead of developing its own filmmaking infrastructure in the 1930s, Canada instead made a foolish pact with the States to allow Americans to freelance in Canada in hopes they would preserve our culture and landscapes. Of course, this was not how it panned out, and instead American filmmakers exploited the Canadian setting, mentioning Canada only in passing, if at all. Happy Birthday to Me is surprisingly similar in that respect, in that the only overt reference to Canada is when Virginia's father mentions that he will be flying out to Calgary. There are a couple Quebec license plates that can be deciphered, but other than that, Canadiana is conspicuously absent--a lengthy bar scene does recall My Bloody Valentine, although there aren't any distinguishing bottles of Moosehead here. The Montreal landscape of the film has been virtually Americanized, and J. Lee Thompson throws in the Calgary reference out of duty, as Hollywood would have done in the past. If My Bloody Valentine presents the sensibilities of Canada, then Happy Birthday to Me focuses on those of Classical Hollywood--the notion of Canada remains but a throwaway obligation.

Despite its lack of a distinctly Canadian voice, Happy Birthday to Me still stands as one of the best films the slasher genre has to offer. It boasts big production values, deliriously twisted storytelling, and remains unique in its ability to recall an older style of filmmaking. While amateurs were busy trying to break into the industry with their no-budget slasher opuses, J. Lee Thompson was showing the world it could be done with the professionalism of a bygone era. I'm just proud to say that Canada was along for the ride.

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