Ginny's gruesome birthday party, where secrets come to light and little is as it seems...
Virginia "Ginny" Wainright (Melissa Sue Anderson) is a senior at the prestigious Crawford Academy, where she is numbered among the "Top Ten," a clique of the school's uber-rich, most popular, and not-so-coincidentally douchiest students. Ginny would seem to have it all but four years ago she survived a car accident that took her drunken mother's life and caused her brain damage that required surgical correction, but a cerebral edema resulted in her losing a chunk of her memory. During a night out with her assholish friends, Ginny unwittingly finds herself a passenger in one of her friends' cars as they play "the Game," in which they attempt to jump a local bridge as it opens up to allow cargo boats to pass. The terror of the high-speed antics and the DUKES OF HAZZARD-style jump over the bridge jars Ginny's memory and long-suppressed recollections of exactly what happened on the fateful night four years prior slowly begin to unravel. But as Ginny's memories begin to gel, her friends are disappearing one by one, all murdered by someone they each recognize (but whose face remains off-camera), which coincides with what appears to be an inexorable slide into confused mental illness for our heroine. Somehow her friends are connected to the car accident that killed her mother and damaged her mind, and as events progress it appears that Ginny is committing the murders and awakening a day later with no memory of her homicidal activities, so just what the hell is going on?
When HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME to me came out in May of 1981, I was about a month shy of turning sixteen and the infamous slasher movie boom of the 1980's was beginning to carve out its bloody onscreen niche in the wake of the runaway box office triumph of FRIDAY THE 13th (1980). Though a tad too young to be allowed into R-rated movies, my peers and I nonetheless managed to see a plethora of gory horror offerings thanks to the staff at local movie houses not giving a fuck if kids bore witness to such era-defining trash. In the case of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, a number of my friends and I piled into a slightly-older friend's beater car and made our way to the film's opening night, armed with a couple of bottles of liquor pilfered from some of our parents' stashes. As we sat in the darkness of the sleazy theater, we downed a considerable amount of alcohol and by the time the film reached its midway point we were too busy messing around and being drunkenly obnoxious to pay attention to what was going on with the movie we'd ventured forth to see. A big part of our apathy had to do with the film being nowhere near as mindlessly violent and gory as the vast majority of its ilk, so there was a strong sense of disappointment that led us all to write HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME off as a dud, and after making that assessment we headed to Compo Beach to finish off the last of our ill-gotten hooch in the wee hours. Ah, the seemingly endless days of misspent youth...
In the thirty-plus years since that anesthetized night, I saw HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME repeatedly referenced as one of the very best of the misbegotten slasher genre and I found that popular opinion running in direct opposition to my admittedly booze-addled memories. In recent years I have revisited the slasher genre of my formative years and, for the most part found its entries lacking, yet I continue onward and hope to rediscover a hidden or forgotten gem or two. In revisiting HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME I finally understand why I was disappointed by it back in the days. It's not particularly gory or scary and it focuses on a pack of entitled, rich douchebags much like the majority of the kids I was raised amongst, so where was the fun in that? However, with the wisdom and filmic education gained over thirty-plus years, I now see the film in a very different light and totally get exactly why it's held in such high esteem these days.
The '80's slasher boom was mostly an avalanche of cranked-out shit, devoid of quality and offering nothing more than a brain-optional MTV-era Grand Guignol for undiscriminating teens and grindhouse devotees, but they were popular, easy to produce on the cheap, and lucrative, so they proliferated for close to a decade. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME came along relatively early in the cycle and distinguished itself from its contemporaries by actually bothering to have a solid plot with more on its mind than buckets of blood and offal, and a cast of defined characters who serve as more than ciphers fit only for the chopping. What little blood there is comes in only the briefest of glimpses and the plot is less concerned with outright scares than with slowly peeling back the layers of Ginny's fractured memory. If anything, the film owes more to the creepy, old school, mystery-tinged flavor of flicks like WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) than the Jason Voorhees school of "fuck and die" quasi-cautionary tales. It was that stressing of psychological misery over grue that now renders HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME as something of a minor cause celebre among latter-day genre enthusiasts, despite a couple of from-out-of-nowhere plot twists during its last act.
While not among my personal favorites from the '80's slasher cycle, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is definitely worthy of note for all the reasons I've outlined and should be seen at least once, if for no other reason than to provide concrete proof that not all slasher films were cookie-cutter efforts cranked out by barely-competent hacks. It's a tad too genteel for its own good but that can be forgiven, thanks to the presence of a legitimate narrative, and it's worth a dozen films like HUMONGOUS, PROM NIGHT, and the majority of the FRIDAY THE 13th franchise.
Poster fro the original theatrical release.