With the Halloween season upon us, I’m taking a break from the rather
exhausting fulfilling Epic Film Quest. I’m switching gears and gorging on horror, rewatching old favorites and Neflixing the shit out of some titles that have somehow escaped my grasp. This past weekend, I reached for the shelf and indulged in one of my faves: the underrated and under loved slasher flick Happy Birthday to Me.
Filmed in Canada circa 1981 by J. Lee Thompson, Happy Birthday to Me was yet another slasher movie attempting to follow in the wake of John Carpenter’s Halloween and the Friday the 13th series. Although slasher follow-ups had a much larger failure rate than success rate, Happy Birthday to Me excels in so many ways, and we all need to be celebrating this should-be-classic horror film this season.
The movie follows Ginny and the rest of the elite “Top 10” at Crawford Academy – a swanky prep school with a hardass Headmaster and plenty of entitled, spoiled white kids who more-than-likely deserve to die slowly. Ginny suffers from amnesia following a car accident she had with her mother, who died in the crash. Enter a serial killer. As bodies start to pile up, Ginny suffers more trauma as the details of her accident start flooding back. Will they help her figure out who’s behind the bloodshed or will they continue driving her toward the edge of insanity?
Happy Birthday to Me is somewhat lengthy for this sub-genre with a running time of 110 minutes, but in my opinion, most of this time is put to good use. There are plenty of twists and turns right up until the very last shot of the film. Many of the details in the narrative, including Ginny’s memories from the crash, are told via well-placed flashbacks, giving viewers a couple pieces of the puzzle at a time. Melissa Sue Anderson (Little House on the Prairie) is strong as the lead character and carries the film nicely. The deaths also deliver. There are some wonderfully gruesome and creative murders in this flick (“Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see!”), and the ones that skimp on the gore make the viewer cringe by leaving it all to the mind. And don’t get me started on that brain surgery scene. I shudder every time.
This movie is a cult film by definition. Purists may look down upon the latest DVD release, as it replaced the movie’s original score, but none of the release’s criticisms can take away from what is truly a unique and atypical movie compared to other fare from that time period. It’s twisted in so many ways, and both outlandish and unnerving in all the right spots. And that ending! Fantastic.
Although it’s not my favorite 80’s cult classic (more on that soon!), if you’re looking for a few scares from a movie you’ve never seen before, Happy Birthday to Me is a must. It bleeds the 80’s from its pores, both in the creativity of the killings and its over-the-top twists. Yet, at its heart, it is cult-y goodness, guaranteed.