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Review: Happy Birthday To Me (1981)

Writer: Lance Vaughan


Lovely Virginia Wainwright (icy-eyed former Ingle Melissa sue Anderson) belongs to an elite clique known as “the top ten” at prestigious Crawford academy. With membership to this club you get a lovely striped scarf and the opportunity to be assassinated by a faceless gloved psychopath. Watching your friends being picked off one by one in increasingly bizarre ways is traumatic enough, but poor Ginnie is is still processing the tragic drawbridge death of her trampy mother while being bombarded by memories of her horrific experimental brain surgery.

Part of the holiday theme cycle of slasher film inspired by the success of Halloween, Happy Birthday To Me is a whodunit in the classic And Then There Were None mold injected with a heaping helping of gore and an atypical mostly male victim roster. Is Virginia herself committing the atrocities during her conveniently timed blackouts? As the suspects dwindle it becomes increasingly likely but thanks to one of the most implausible twists in horror history, you haven't a chance of guessing the jaw-dropping, groan inducing dilly of a finale.

Sporting an impressive pedigree that includes director J.Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear) and co-staring legendary actor Glenn Ford, HBTM is a classy affair when compared to the backyard titles of the era. But don’t let the high production values and professional presentation fool you. Producers John Dunning and Andre Link are also responsible for the classic MPAA baiting slashathon My Bloody Valentine and have a clear understanding of what ticket buyers were paying to see circa 1981. Namely, eye popping, show stopping murders performed with tools raging from the standard hunting knife to the now infamous shish kebob skewer that dominates the theatrical poster.

For years it was rumored that several endings were shot to prevent the identity of the killer being exposed. It was even said that there was a plan to release different endings into different theaters. (this idea was utilized for the Debra Hill produced Clue and considered for the more recent Freddy Vs Jason.) Alas, it now appears that this was all just promotional smoke and mirrors designed to evoke interest in the film. (a shame as any other ending would be superior in the believability department.) In reality the shocker twist was shoehorned in at the last minute and the original ending with final girl Anderson responsible for the mayhem was never filmed. As it stands several variations of the film do exist thanks to a recently released DVD with significant soundtrack discrepancies to the standard VHS and a british edition with extended death scenes. (Navigate over to the lost films/scenes section of this site for even more information on this movie's unfortunate trimmings)

Any way you slice this birthday cake you certainly get an excellent piece of eighties style horror. HBTM is now considered a verifiable classic to gore-hounds. Many of the genre's rules/cliches that we now take for granted were forged by this opus and no real slasher fan should exclude this well wrapped gift from their collection. Whether you buy the outlandishness of the final reveal or not, the atmospheric and delightfully grotesque party scene is one for the ages.



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