This Week In Horror – Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

This week in Horror movie history, back on May 15th in 1981, Canadian Horror-Mystery-Slasher Happy Birthday to Me hit theaters. A part of the slew of Slasher-themed Horror flicks, written by John CW Saxton (Blackout 1978, Class of 1984 1982) and directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone 1961, King Solomon’s Mines 1985), it is arguably one of the better of the bunch to be produced in the 1980s era. 

Happy Birthday to Me still.

A bold statement, Happy Birthday to Me is one of the more creepy Slashers around, sporting a great story full of many twists and turns. In fact, when it comes to the viewing audience believing they have finally deduced the killer and the motive for it all, one unexpected twist is shoehorned in that surprisingly and shockingly drags them right back into the mayhem. Ultimately, this all leads to a conclusion that is extremely dark and cements Happy Birthday to Me as one more clever Horror films from its era. Though Happy Birthday to Me is often snubbed off and not exactly well-known, sadly overlooked as the screen gem that it is supposed to be, its cult status has continued to climb over the years.

Produced by John Dunning and André Link as a Cinépix production, the film centers around academically and socially arrogant Crawford Academy, in which Melissa Sue Anderson (Little House on the Prairie series, The Equalizer series) plays character Virginia Wainwright, a student at the academy. Here, horrifically, Virginia and her group of friends mysteriously go missing years after terrible events that happened to her during a childhood birthday.

With top-notch casting, Melissa Sue Anderson delivers a fantastic performance that leaves viewers guessing as to whether she is the killer or not. Secondly, despite some naysayers, Glenn Ford (Pocketful of Miracles 1961, Superman 1978) gives an amazing performance as Dr. David Faraday that brings a sense of completeness and dignity to the role. Lenore Zann (Visiting Hours 1982, X-Men series), as Maggie, is a visionary actress who also deserves more credit, and though she is only seen in mere flashbacks, she takes her role to unfamiliar territories and brings the magic of this character to life.

Happy Birthday to Me still.

While these actors are in major roles that truly stand out, also of note are Lawrence Dane (Scanners 1981, Bride of Chucky 1998), as Hal Wainwright; Frances Hyland (The Changeling 1980, The Lotus Eaters 1993), as the headmistress; and Lesleh Donaldson (Curtains 1983, Abnormal Attraction 2018), who has a killer cameo as the first victim.

Presumably, the creators of Happy Birthday to Me believed that their premise had massive appeal, as, after all, everyone has a birthday. Although many would assume that the film was heavily-influenced by the story beats of 1980’s Friday the 13th and Prom Night, it is worth noting that pre-production on Happy Birthday to Me had begun before either of those films had been released, which more than hints that the huge success of 1978’s Halloween was more of an immediate influence here. Of course, the commercial success of Friday the 13th could have easily prompted this film team to add more gore into their production to compete with the Horror films of the time. Nonetheless, at the time, it was one of the highest-grossing films of the time, that is, until Bob Clark’s 1981’s Porky’s came along.

When Happy Birthday to Me made its way to theaters in the spring of 1981, most ads and promos circulated a poster for the film depicting a young man about to be orally impaled with a skewer, along with the slogan “John will never eat shish-kebabs again.” However, there was no character by this name in the film! Many of the posters also featured a longer block of text advertising further phantom characters who, either never were in the film, or met their ultimate demise on the cutting room floor.

Happy Birthday to Me still.

What makes this film stand out among the rest is its skilled and crafty use of gore throughout. While Happy Birthday to Me is ridiculously bloody, the gore is done in such a way that it never manages to over-saturate its viewers in redrum. For the most part, the most gory scenes are not even the actual murder scenes, but rather medical procedures that takes place within the plot. In fact, one scene was actually done by a real-life neurosurgeon who performed a procedure on a fake head to make it look and appear more believable to an audience.

The only thing more stomach-churning than the actual murder scenes in Happy Birthday to Me is the plot twist itself. While it is unpredictable and comes literally out of nowhere, this was not always meant to be the case: many of the media have claimed that there were actually several endings shot for the film. This simply was not true, but the rumor helped to mask the real issue of there being no exact ending to the film; while the script was written with a predictable ending that made perfect sense, there was none of that iconic twist that we have come to love. This would explain the lack of build-up towards the twist at the end of the film, as producers continually tinkered with an ending that would shake up their audience. Ultimately, the film would be sent back by MPAA many times in hopes of receiving an R-rating; mostly due to the extensive and graphic nature of the murders, the production team would have to trim down the explicit nature of the film for a theatrical release.

The opening credit score of the film still remains as one of the best Horror scores ever made, but no official soundtrack was ever recorded for the film, so many consider the opening atmospheric piece to be the score for the film. Therefore, many fans were upset with the 2004 DVD release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, because it not only had a completely different cover to that of the infamous original poster and VHS cover, but it also featured a Disco score in place of the piano piece that originally played over the opening credits.

Happy Birthday to Me still.

Later on, in 2009, Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment re-released the DVD using the original poster as the cover and restoring the original music over the opening sequence. The most iconic of the two songs featured would be the ending credit piece, in which one has little time to compose themselves after the unique twist that presents itself at the end of the film. It leaves the viewer with a sense of eeriness that resonates long after the credits have rolled, making it one of the most effective ending scores in a Horror film to this day.

In short, Happy Birthday to Me delivers on many levels that fans of such Horror classics as Halloween and Friday the 13th can fully appreciate. Clearly, J. Lee Thompson knew exactly what he was doing, and pulled-out all the necessary stops to make this one of the most effective and unparalleled Horror pieces ever produced, and quite possibly, one of the best Horror features to date. Happy movie watching to you!

Columbia Pictures

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