John Dunning and Andre Link had already scored a hit with their Canadian slasher My Bloody Valentine when Happy Birthday to Me was released in May, 1981. Despite being filmed first, Happy Birthday to Me was delayed for some time, before making a respectable amount at the box office. Due to the talent involved, this is often dismissed as a slasher and is usually given the kind of respect that a thriller would receive, instead of a low budget slice and dice horror. In the director’s chair was J. Lee Thompson, who had helmed the ’60’s flick Cape Fear, and heading the cast was Glenn Ford, who had been a respected actor since the ’30’s and had even worked for Fritz Lang on the 1953 classic The Big Heat. While most slashers were full of amateur nobodies, Happy Birthday to Me at least seemed a little more classy.
Virginia (Little House on the Prairie‘s Melissa Sue Anderson) has slowly been recovering after a near-death car crash left her with severe head injuries. She has since become a member of a popular high school clique and as her birthday approaches the excitement builds. But one by one her friends disappear, gruesomely killed by a black gloved killer (edging the movie closer towards giallo than slasher), and eventually the suspicion falls on her. Despite the twist ending feeling somewhat forced (it was improvised during filming), Happy Birthday to Me at least tries some unique kills and manages to flesh out some of the characters, and although the end result may be lacking the gruesome edge of Friday the 13th it succeeds by boasting the same kind of Argento-inspired cinematography and atmosphere that Night School employed.
Like all the best slashers, the central characters in Happy Birthday to Me are likeable enough to entertain the viewer in between the kills, with the group of friends who populate the nearby bar resembling a less cartoon version of the kids from Porky’s. Virginia may lack the archetype final girl characteristics that Halloween‘s Laurie or A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Nancy have have shown, but the writers (John Saxton, Timothy Bond and Peter Jobin) tried to flesh her out by giving her a disturbing backstory and line her up as a possible suspect. Some of the kill scenes may be poorly executed (pun intended), but there are enough to keep the slasher fans happy.
Thanks to the experienced Thomson and a substantially large budget ($3m), Happy Birthday to Me is one of the more professionally looking slashers and with a distinguished cast and crew (including Lawrence Dane, fresh from his success with Scanners) the MPAA were surprisingly lenient with the movie, resulting in it passing almost uncut. Whilst there are glaring plot holes and the ending makes very little narrative sense, overall Happy Birthday to Me is an entertaining slasher and worthy of the minor acclaim it has received. It may not be the best entry in the genre but it is by no means the worst.