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Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

Anchor Bay Entertainment
DVD Released: 10/13/2009

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/7/2009

If you've been into DVDs for more than a few days, then you are no doubt familiar with the idea of "double dips". This phenomenon occurs when a title is released on DVD more than once. This is often a frivolous matter and simply a money-making ploy by the home video companies. But, some are more legitimate. Take the 1981 slasher film Happy Birthday to Me for example. The film was originally released on DVD a little over five years ago and fans weren't very happy. Not only was the cover art pretty shoddy, but the movie's original score had been replaced by different music. Now, Anchor Bay has rectified those problems with a new release which features the original music and the original poster on the cover. But, is this movie worth all of the fuss?

Little House on the Prairie vet Melissa Sue Anderson stars in Happy Birthday to Me as Virginia "Ginny" Wainwright, a student at the exclusive Crawford Academy. (Which I'm fairly certain is a college, based on the school's size and the fact that some of the actors look as if they're in their late 30s.) Despite the fact that Ginny is fairly new to Crawford, she's already been accepted into the "Top 10", a tight-knit group of students who love to party together. The other members of the "Top 10" are: Ann (Tracey Bregman), Alfred (Jack Blum), Steve (Matt Craven), Maggie (Lenore Zann), Rudi (David Eisner), Amelia (Lisa Langlois), Ettiene (Michel-Rene Labelle), Greg (Richard Rebiere), and Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson). All seems well for these pampered students, until they begin to suddenly disappear one at a time. The police and school officials investigate, but can't find any clues. Meanwhile, Ginny, who's been seeing Dr. Faraday (Glenn Ford) for psychotherapy, begins to have flashbacks to a trauma that she suffered in the past.

Happy Birthday to Me benefits from the presence of established actors Melissa Sue Anderson and Glenn Ford, as they bring an air of respectability to the production. Which is a good thing, as the rest of the movie is a convoluted mess which is hampered by a Scooby-Doo ending which would make Wayne & Garth blush. For starters, the "Top 10" may be a great name for a clique, but throwing ten characters at the audience makes things confusing, and their constant coupling and re-coupling may help to illustrate the morally ambiguity of this crowd, but it doesn't help to define the characters. These characters are given petty motivations which are meant to make them suspects, but they are never well-defined enough for us to truly mis-trust.

Director J. Lee Thompson had made some classic films in the past, such as Cape Fear, but his old-school approach to Happy Birthday to Me makes it pale in comparison to its peers. The film has very little violence (more on that in a moment) and none of the T&A which is usually associated with these films. One could applaud Happy Birthday to Me for taking a "classier" approach to the slasher genre, but those accolades would only be viable if the film had anything else to offer, such as suspense. Whenever we see the black gloves of the killer (shades of Argento here), we know that someone is going to die, and thus any suspense is nullified. The fact that the killer is revealed an hour into the film doesn't help either. The movie has an elaborate moto-cross scene and a soccer game, neither of which could have been all that cheap or easy to stage. Why didn't they nix these scenes and give us more action?

The only thing that keeps Happy Birthday to Me moving along, and thus worth watching, are Ginny's flashbacks. We know that something unusual is going one with Ginny (she seems to be very afraid of a certain bridge in town) and the spacing of the flashbacks, each offering a little more of her story, are intriguing and help to combat the tedium of the rest of the film. As mentioned above, the ending is quite hokey and unbelievable, but the film's last moment is quite chilling and will stay with the viewer. Happy Birthday to Me is not a very good movie, but it does offer a few things to help separate it from the slasher pack.

Happy Birthday to Me does a terrible job of throwing a party on DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is somewhat sharp, but there is a noticeable amount of grain on the image. It's never intrusive, but it's there. The transfer also shows some minor defects from the source material, such as dirt and small scratches. (And there's at least one shot where a frame is clearly missing.) The image is a tad dark, but the colors look OK. The picture is also somewhat flat. The bottom line is that this looks better than VHS, but it still looks like an older movie. The DVD carries a Dolby Surround 2.0 audio track according to the DVD box. While the track provides clear dialogue and sound effects, I didn't get any hint of surround sound effects. I did note some minor stereo effects here and there. The music and sounds such as thunder never drown out the dialogue.

The lone extra on the Happy Birthday to Me DVD is the TRAILER for the film which has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and is 16 x 9 and gives away some of the murders.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long