Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford
The 80’s was the era of the slasher film. It’s no surprise considering the success of films such as Friday the 13th. There were also films of that era that were lumped into the slasher genre due to the ease of marketing but that don’t quite fill the mold. For example it’s a bit of a stretch to call the first Halloween a slasher. The franchise did evolve into the formula as it progressed but it didn’t really start out that way. Friday the 13th on the other hand was an unapologetic slash fest, and that’s cool. Happy Birthday to Me was one such film that was marketed as a slasher film but it actually fits a different less common genre of film, the giallo.
The giallo film is a mystery film that features some gory murders done by a mysterious killer wearing black gloves. The genre was created and perfected by writer/director Dario Argento in the 60’s and 70’s. There are murders and they often are a bit on the brutal side but not usually to the level of an American slasher. These sorts of films are also slower paced and as much about mood as they are about the actual murders. Happy Birthday to Me fits the bill perfectly. The original logline promises six bizarre murders and what you actually get are six somewhat mundane kills even for the era in which the film was made. It’s possible that these murders were held back due to budget constraints but it’s just as likely that the director was actually more interested in doing an American giallo rather than a slasher film. That may have also been the selling point for star Melissa Sue Anderson who was known for playing Mary Ingalls in the television series Little House on the Prairie. In the time the film was originally released there was probably as much interest in the potential of seeing a grown up Anderson in the buff as there was in any possible edgy murders.
Anderson plays a young woman returning to college after a near fatal accident. Much of the story from here is formula horror film with her hanging out with her college pals at a local bar and such. It’s in these early scenes that it becomes most apparent that Anderson is the only person in the film with any acting abilities at all. Soon the murders begin and so do the red herrings. It seems like every character ahs to sport some black gloves at some point as a mis-direct from the real killer. The big problem is that the mystery doesn’t quite work with some decisions not even making sense. The other issue is of course that there’s not much suspense or even gore from the six kills. The kill on the cover art is about the edgiest in the whole film.
With all of the problems there’s still a lot of good ol’ 80’s fun in this film with the bad acting and the unintentionally funny scenes. Happy Birthday to Me was a stand out in the 80’s run of holiday films even if it really isn’t that scary of a film. Fans of 80’s horror like myself will still enjoy this film as long as they come into it with realistic expectations of what they’re about to see. Also you have to respect the director for attempting to create an Italian giallo film rather than just doing another slasher flick.
This anamorphic widescreen presentation looks fairly good for a 20+ year old low budget horror film. Some colors still pop and detail levels are strong in brighter scenes. There’s a moderate amount of grain and black levels are a bit on the murky side crushing the detail in darker scenes. Overall though this is a good transfer considering the source material.
This Dolby 2.0 stereo presentation is good but not mind blowing in a surround sound environment. The presentation is basic but dialogue, score, and sound effects are well balanced and fairly clean.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The single disc comes packaged in a standard amaray case with cover art that promises something the film inevitably doesn’t deliver gory kills.
The only extras on this disc are a restored original sound track and the original trailer. The original soundtrack is a welcome addition to this film. It tries for something different just like the film and it works well here. There’s tons of opportunity for cool bonus features here but unfortunately Anchor Bay doesn’t deliver on this one.
The film doesn’t deliver what the marketing promises but it does strive to be something unique in a sea of copycat slasher films and for that it deserves some attention. It’s atmospheric and it features some style even if it doesn’t bring the horror that you might expect.
Overall (Not an average) 7/10
The Movie 7/10
The Video 7/10
The Audio 6.5/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 2/10
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10