Horror Film Review: Happy Birthday To Me (dir by J. Lee Thompson)

“John will never eat shish kebab again!” announces the poster for the 1981 Canadian slasher film, Happy Birthday To Me.  

Happy Birthday To Me is famous for three things.  One of those things is the poster above, which was apparently so controversial that it actually led to the film being banned in some countries.  That said, it’s a brilliant poster, one that probably belongs in the Film Poster Hall of Fame.  If I had been alive and old enough to sneak into the movies in 1981, that poster would have drawn me into the theater.

The other interesting thing about the poster is that no one in the movie is named John.  There is a shish kebab scene, of course.  But it happens to a guy named Steven, not to anyone named John.  Of course, the poster also says that Steven likes to ride a motorcycle but, in the movie, the motorcycle rider is a pervy French-Canadian named Etienne.  Maybe the film’s producers feared that American audiences would not be willing to watch a movie featuring a character named Etienne.  (They were probably right, by the way.  Happy Birthday To Me came out decades before Degrassi: The Next Generation taught America that it has nothing to fear from the Canadians.)

As for what else Happy Birthday To Me is famous for — well, first of all, there’s the actual shish kebab scene itself.  As cringe-inducing as it may appear to be on the poster, it’s even more disturbing in the actual film.  Interestingly enough, there’s not a lot of blood in the scene.  In fact, it’s one of the few scenes in Happy Birthday To Me to not be drenched in blood.  However, there is a lot of gagging and gurgling and the sounds are all the more disturbing because they’re taking place off-camera.  Making it even more unsettling is that Steven (played by Matt Craven, who has since become a distinguished character actor) is one of the few likable characters in the movie.  In a movie full of snobs, pervs, and weirdos, Steven is the guy who is always encouraging people to stop fighting, make love, and gamble.

Finally, Happy Birthday To Me is famous for not making a damn bit of sense.

Actually, to be fair, the movie does make sense up until the final ten minutes or so.  Up until that point, it’s simply been a well-made slasher film, albeit an above average example of the genre.  There’s a killer on the loose, killing students at Crawford Academy.  All of the victims are members of the Top Ten, an exclusive clique of rich and spoiled teens.  (Interestingly enough, not every member of the Top Ten is killed.  In fact, some of the people who you are sure are due to be killed somehow manage to survive.)  One member of the Top Ten, Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson), should be excited about her upcoming birthday party but instead, she is haunted by flashbacks to a car accident and the brain surgery that she was forced to undergo afterward.  (Footage of actual brain surgery was used in the film.)  Her father (Lawrence Dane) is clueless.  Her therapist (Glenn Ford) insists that Ginny needs to move on with her life.  But Ginny can’t escape the feeling that something is not right, especially when all of her friends start to disappear.

As I said, it all makes sense up until the final ten minutes or so of the film.  That’s when the film produces a twist that is so out-of-nowhere and nonsensical that you cannot help but admire the film’s audacity.  I’m not going to spoil the twist, other than to say that it makes no sense and I absolutely loved it.  From what I’ve read, it appears that the twist ending was almost literally made up on the spot and it’s just so weird that it elevates the entire movie.

Of the many slasher films that came out in the early 1980s, Happy Birthday To Me is one of the best.  It’s a classic that need not ever be remade.  (I doubt any remake could match the audacity of the original’s finale.)  Nicely acted, intelligently directed, and batshit insane when it needed to be, Happy Birthday To Me is an October essential!

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