I usually do a spoiler free review, but I do plan on having a spoiler section in this review at the bottom of the page because it's warranted.
Now as I've said before, I'm a child of the 80s and grew up watching all the grand 80s horror on VHS back in the day. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME was one of the nuggets from the era. It's been ages since I've watched it, so I tossed it on today as background viewing while doing some basic production work. I have to say that I had forgotten just how good it was - both story wise and just as a film in general.
Happy Birthday to Me came out in 1981 - a huge year for horror, really. We had AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE HOWLING, THE BURNING, THE BEYOND, FRIDAY THE 13th Part II, THE PROWLER, BURIAL GROUND, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, and GHOST STORY to name a few. I believe this was a time of moving away from monsters and into the world of the slasher, but also trying to keep things smart and interesting. The early 70s had a series of "mean" and violent films. Items like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, TEXAS CHAINSAW, and BLACK CHRISTMAS that really let the violence fly. However, there was another element that made it's way into the genre as well. A giallo element where the Who Done It aspects were played up. FRIDAY THE 13TH, ALICE, SWEET ALICE, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, and the aforementioned BLACK CHRISTMAS played with the giallo who done it style is glorious ways. By the 80s, the trend was in full swing and movie after movie tried to outdo the twists and turns. Happy Birthday to Me follows in the wake wondrously.
The story is simple on the surface. A group of beautiful, well off college seniors gallivant around being the beautiful people they are. They live in beautiful homes and live beautiful lives and are all looking forward to their beautiful futures. However, someone is picking them off ten little Indians style and we're lead down a rabbit hole as we try to sort out just who the killer is as the lead, Virginia (Ginny) , starts to feel herself unraveling and remembering horrors from her past.
Now, I'm saving my spoilers for later. If you have not seen the film, DO NOT do a search for it or it will be ruined for sure. Of course, the film came out in 1981, so you most likely have either seen the film already or have seen some spoiler out in the world. The film offers something other than the end, however. The acting is rather good for one, with the likes of Melissa Sue Anderson (Little House on the Prairie) and Glenn Ford working along side other staples of the 80s acting world and with a script that is strong and dialogue that never brings groans or laughs. And the film does have a series of creative kills, but doesn't linger on the gore for long. It chooses to show a bit of splatter, but cuts away instead of reveling in the goo. I think that upped the level for me - taking it from "splatter flick" to more of a giallo mystery. It's definitely playing the giallo card in many ways!
Check it out if you have not seen it. Like I said, on re-watch I remembered just how much I enjoyed what HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME brought to the table in the genre.
Now, listen to the FANTASTIC Happy Birthday to Me theme. It still haunts me to this day. It's one of those iconic themes that is sprinkled throughout the film in a fun way and as the credits roll and it comes up....whew....
•••• Spoilers are below. Read on if you want to deep dive into the end of the film. •••••
WOW! I had forgotten how the film ended! What a wondrous treat for me!!!! Here I was, half watching while doing some low level production tasks and the end of the film comes looming up. I had remembered the very end scene with Virginia standing by all her dead friends, mother, and father with the sad little theme rolling and dusty party fading to black. However, I had forgotten the multiple twists - including the fantastic, Scooby Doo mask reveal! heheheheh
So, watching...then Virginia uttering her little, "Now it's your turn you bitch..." line and I had to pay attention because I thought this might go into a final girl moment with someone who escaped death. But, NO! It's Virginia?!?!?! WHAT?! So, being a horror fan, I switch gears into, "WAIT WHAAAAAAT?! Oh, it's not a final girl thing. It's an evil twin thing. COOL! I forgot!" More drama about the precious birthday, but I still didn't remember the full twists. We have our little knife skirmish, then BOOM! the Scooby Doo mask reveal! Again, I burst out with a comment - so happy about the way things were going in this marvelous third act.
We get a major update through exposition and flashback, but I thought it was done rather well. Quick and easy - wrapped up for us neatly. Then, ole nutsy Ann goes in for the kill, but is taken out by Virginia RIGHT before the cop investigating the disappearances stumbles in and utters, "What have you DONE?!" with Ginny finally over the edge and completely lost to the world due to what she's suffered through. Then...fade to black on Ginny - hands dripping with blood and murder weapon in hand - and in with the theme which is even more sad knowing that Ginny will probably spend the rest of her days in a padded cell.
WOW! Frucking DARK, man! hehehehe I was blown away. It's really a fucked up little ending. hehehe And, it explained things nicely. No, Ginny wasn't some bi-polar nutter. She was chloroformed repeatedly and Ann slipped in to kill. I loved that aspect. It explained a lot.
Was it a little WTF at the end? A bit. But, they really wrapped up a few things in a great way. We see Virginia's mother - drunk and angry hanging off the gate of the party her daughter wasn't invited to and we get to hear that she has a nasty bit of baggage in her past, but we don't know what it is at the time. The reveal and exposition at the end puts a lovely bow on that for us as Ann reveals that she and Virginia are half sisters.
Hell, I loved the whole of it!
What did you think? Are you a fan of this 80s classic? Let me know in the comments!