Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: This birthday isn’t happy.

            Virignia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) attends a private school where she is a part of a snotty clique whose members start getting killed off just before her 18th birthday. Due to a freak accident suffered years before she has blackouts causing suspicions that she may be the culprit. With the help of her psychiatrist Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) they try to come up with some answers.

Despite being listed as a slasher film and having gained a loyal cult following I found the gore factor to be disappointing. The killings are quite brief and the camera quickly cuts away before much blood, or anything else is shown. The famous shish kebab murder that is captured on the film’s poster is poorly executed. Apparently there was more footage of the killings, but in order to get an R-rating director J. Lee Thompson was forced to cut a lot of it out. However, it would be nice to get a director’s cut version as I am sure today’s horror fans may feel cheated otherwise. The grossest sequence for me wasn’t the killings at all, but instead the scene where Virginia undergoes brain surgery and her skull is vividly cut open and one can see the brain pulsating and expanding inside. The deaths really didn’t seem all that creative and clever despite the film’s reputation and if anything my favorite death scene didn’t involve one of the killings but instead was the part where Virginia and her mother are riding in a car that goes off a bridge and then fills up with water, which is surprisingly intense.

I also had some major issues with the film’s opening murder that features a young girl getting strangled while inside her car. For one thing the killer’s hands didn’t seem to be all that tight around her neck and when the girl manages to escape there are no marks around her neck even though realistically there should be. Also, when she escapes she runs for only a few feet and then stops behind a nearby parked car and acts like she is now ‘safe’ even though most people would run several blocks and probably wouldn’t stop until they found someone else that could help, or the police. The victim also speaks, but if someone has been strangled as severely as she has her voice would have to be effected by it and she might not be able to say anything, or at least speak in a very raspy tone, which is not the case here.

For the most part I found the film to be boring and predictable. I never once got scared, or even all that intrigued. The movie is jammed with every cheesy 80’s horror movie cliché that you can think of. Normally film’s from this genre run no more than 90 minutes and sometimes even less. Going 110 minutes as this one does is much too long for a plot that is paper-thin.  However, the very macabre ending is excellent and almost makes up for it. The surprise twist isn’t bad either although a bit implausible.

Anderson, best known as Mary Ingals from the long running TV-show ‘Little House on the Prairie’, isn’t bad. A shot of her at the end where she is carrying a birthday cake and looks up and smiles is both chilling and sexy and quite possibly the film’s pinnacle. There is no nudity although director Thompson teases the viewer by having her undress to get into the shower, but the camera never gets past her bra and panties.

Hollywood icon Ford is wasted and his tired appearance is almost sad. His wardrobe features him wearing an open shirt showing his bare chest and it looks ridiculous for a man his age. There is another scene where the police dig up a skull on the school’s grounds and the Ford character asks to take a look at it and the police promptly hand it over to him, which I found to be equally ridiculous as that is a crucial piece of evidence that would only be handled by a forensic expert.

If anything Sharon Acker as Virginia’s alcoholic mother Estelle gives the best performance.  Her overwrought slightly hammy scene near the end gives the film some much needed energy.

There were a few other loopholes and inconsistencies that irritated me enough to be mentioned here. One is that years earlier Virginia had a birthday party and all her friend’s snubbed her and didn’t show up, so they could instead go to a party held by a girl who was more wealthy and popular, which made me wonder why then would Virginia want to remain friends with them like she did.  Another part involves a member of their clique named Alfred (Jack Blum) who the girls initially think is storing the severed head of one of their murdered friends. They later realize that this was simply a realistic looking plastic mold that he had made to resemble her, which makes them feel ‘relieved’ enough to continue to socialize with him. However, anyone who makes plastic molds of heads from someone they know that has just been killed seems just as creepy to me and enough to make most normal people concerned, which the characters here are not. There is also no explanation at the end for how the killer, whose identity I will not divulge, was able to come up with such an elaborate and realistic disguise. The gory effects are also not convincing and could have used Tom Savini’s help

Like I said I found the film’s ending to be pretty cool and enough for me to suggest this film to horror fans, but only if they are willing to stick around for it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 15, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R (Violence, Language, Adult Theme)

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Studio: Columbia

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

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