Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

I remember Happy Birthday to Me being known as “the shish kebab movie” in reference to its iconic kill-scene back when it was a birthday-slumber-party staple amongst the girls in my junior high school. I have vague recollections of them making jokes about showing the movie while serving skewered food to their sleepover guests, and although I don’t know if any of them actually followed through, the buzz the scene created has stuck with me. Having not seen the movie since the mid-80s, I was anxious to see if there was more to it than a single scene.

Life sure is tough for the elite students known as the Top Ten who attend the fancy-pants Crawford Academy – they drive sports cars, they race motorcycles, they hanghappy birthday to me shriners out in bars and get in fights with Shriners. Okay, so maybe life isn’t actually all that tough for these overprivileged kids but it gets at least marginally tougher when they start becoming dead. At the same time, the newest member of the group, Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson), is dealing with issues of neglect from her father (Lawrence DaneScanners, Of Unknown Origin) as well as repressed memories from an accident that claimed the life of her mother and nearly that of her own four years prior. Could Ginny’s accident somehow be connected to the recent disappearances? Dun-dun-duuuun!!!

In more ways than one, this Canadian slasher/whodunit borrows heavily from Italian giallo movies (or is a giallo depending on your definition) –  from the elaborate, bloody murders (shish kebab through the neck, barbell to the happybirthdayweightthroat, and motorcycle wheel to the face), all the way down to the first-person view of the black-leather-gloved killer’s blade glinting in the moonlight. It’s one of those movies that, in order to make the point thehappy birthday to me black glove killer is someone familiar, shows him/her, identity obscured and unspeaking, approach a soon-to-be victim who says something vague like, “Oh, it’s you”, which no real person would ever say to greet someone they know. Then, to make everyone seem suspicious, there are scenes scattered throughout showing each one of the main characters leering menacingly in the background of poignant conversations. It’s always a little cheesy, but I suppose it does the trick.

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Overwrought cinematic devices aside, this movie is really well done in almost every way. The kill scenes are cool, there are a number of tense moments, and director J. Lee Thompson (he had previously directed The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear among others) lends a sort of “big movie” feel to the whole thing. The cast is solid throughout, including 80s horror regular Lisa Langlois (Phobia, Deadly Eyes, The Nest, Transformations) and even boasts Hollywood legend Glenn Ford Happy-Birthday-To-Me-Dr-Faradayamong its members. It’s rare that a slasher flick is able to land this kind of established talent and apparently Ford was pretty grumpy about his participation. He reportedly spent quite a bit of his time on set sauced up and being kind of a dick to everyone, even going as far as throwing punches at the assistant director. But, even crotchety Glenn Ford is still Glenn Ford and his performance was good, if not a little distracted.

So now we come to the ending. No discussion of this movie would be complete without talking about the infamous ending, so if you don’t want it spoiled, skip down to the last paragraph for now and then come back once you’ve watched it.

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With respect to the final scene of Happy Birthday to Me, there isn’t much middle ground – people either love it or hate it. It’s revealed that Ann (Tracey E. Bregman) has been doing the killing with the intention of framing Ginny for the murders, but this wasn’t the ending that was originally planned. Initially Ginny was to be the killer, but the filmmakers decided, halfway through filming, they wanted a more exciting twist. With a little reshooting and editing it should have been possible to change direction this late in the game, but instead, whether because of budget constraints or just pure laziness, it seems they chose to mold the new story to match the footage they already had, including scenes clearly showing Ginny doing the killing. Their convoluted solution was that Ann would have a mask that somehow made her indistinguishable from Ginny to their friends as well as to the audience, resulting in a weak, cartoonish ending (Scooby Doo comes to mind) to an otherwise cool horror film. Don’t get me wrong, I still really like this movie and being fooled into thinking Ginny is the killer is part of the fun, but had it been done more elegantly (think Psycho instead of Mission Impossible) I think Happy Birthday to Me could have made the leap from good slasher film to excellent mystery-thriller.

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Regardless of the polarized opinions about its ending, Happy Birthday to Me is definitely worth watching and, in fact, I would call it a must-see if you’re a slasher fan. It has a production quality not seen in most movies of its type along with solid elements of mystery and suspense. Plus, if you’re harboring any repressed Little House on the Prairie fantasies, you get to see Mary Ingalls in a bra, which seems tame compared to the gratuitous skin shown in most slasher films, but is downright racy compared to those pioneer dresses. So gather up your friends on your birthday and celebrate by sitting them down to watch this movie. Whether or not shish kebab is on the menu is entirely up to you.

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