Color, 1981, 110.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Starring Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker, Frances Hyland, Tracey Bregman, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lenore Zann, David Eisner, Lisa Langlois, Michel Rene Labelle, Lesleh Donaldson
Indicator (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/NTSC), Mill Creek (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Sony (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Largely overlooked on its original theatrical run during the crowded slasher movie stampede of 1981 (apart from its notorious shish kabob poster art), this epic-length (for the subgenre) Canadian gem has managed to beat the odds over the years with a constantly rising reputation and legion of fans that now place it among the best of its pack. On the way to his final career stage as a busy helmer for Cannon Films with titles like Murphy’s Law and the slasher-action hybrid 10 to Midnight, Hollywood vet J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone) brings a slick, classy veneer to this nutty tale of slaughtered high students, brutal brain surgery, and Scooby-Doo-worthy plot twists you won’t believe. It was also a big prestige project for Cinepix, the Canadian outfit who made this back to back with another essential Canadian slasher staple, My Bloody Valentine.
At Crawford Academy, someone is picking off the members of the pampered, elite “Top Ten,” a group of privileged teens including the traumatized Melissa (Little House on the Prairie’s Anderson), who’s still fresh from a major brain trauma that landed her in the operating room. The first victim is Canada’s premiere slasher star, Lesleh Donaldson (who made this in between Funeral Home and Curtains), so you know things are on the right track immediately. Trying to help Virginia through this crisis are her shrink, Dr. Faraday (Ford, one of the weirdest pieces of prestigious slasher casting ever) and her dad, Hal (Rituals’ Dane), but they’re no match for a psycho killer with an axe to grind… or could the killer be Virginia herself, even without her knowledge?
Loads of fun throughout, Happy Birthday to Me probably wouldn’t be remembered as fondly if it weren’t for the truly nutty final ten minutes in which the big birthday party finally swings into action. Magazines like Famous Monsters managed to spoil a bit of the reveal with one iconic photo, but fortunately that still couldn’t prepare viewers for what actually transpires. It’s also a surprisingly rewatchable film you can come back to at regular intervals and still enjoy, hitting most of the slasher basics while maintaining enough intelligence and filmmaking craft to make it a good crossover recommendation for those poor souls who normally don’t like stalk-and-slash fare.
Though you’d think a major studio release (picked up by Columbia, now under the Sony banner) would have a straightforward release history, that turned out to be anything but for this film. Accounts persisted that this film was originally shot with buckets of blood during several murder scenes with some territories (namely the UK) getting a slightly more graphic version, but no physical evidence exists to bear any of this out. Muddying matters is the presence of several gory production stills from the weight-lifting and motorcycle wheel murders, featuring imagery far more gruesome than what ended up in the final cut. Video bootleggers promised longer versions throughout the ‘90s (including a much-circulated Dutch VHS copy that turned out to be identical to the usual cut), and so far any extra footage (if it ever existed) has yet to turn up. However, that was far from the last mystery involving this film; in 2004, Sony premiered it on DVD featuring a much-despised Photoshop nightmare of a cover design featuring a cross-eyed girl in front of a castle for some reason. (Though cited as the worst cover design at the time, it has since been surpassed by other ill-advised hack jobs.) That disc looked fine but sported a completely different music soundtrack, with an uncredited alternate (earlier?) score and a peppy pop song playing out over the formerly sinister opening sequence. Anchor Bay corrected that issue in 2009 with its own DVD edition, which added on the formerly elusive theatrical trailer as the sole extra. Of course, a title this popular would have to make it to Blu-ray eventually, and in 2013 it popped up as a surprise co-feature with When a Stranger Calls from Mill Creek, initially circulated only in Wal-Mart stores before going wide a few months later. The HD transfer looked quite good, but smashing the 110-minute film onto a single-layered disc with a second feature compromised the compression more than a bit.
That left plenty of room for improvement, and fortunately you’ll find that in the 2016 dual-format Blu-ray and DVD limited edition from Powerhouse Film’s Indicator series (thankfully retaining that shish kabob artwork on the cover). The HD presentation improves considerably from the additional breathing room, looking more robust with lots of additional texture in the darker scenes (which looked a bit flat before, and of which there are many). Both the original LPCM English mono audio and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix are included; the former sounds truest to the version you’ve known and loved, but the later mix actually isn’t bad and mainly spreads the music out to the rear and front channels tastefully enough. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included, billed as being improved from the previous closed captions. That infamous alternate score track is included here, too, so you can easily toggle back and forth to see just how radically different it is. (That said, the opening song is pretty darn catchy even if it belongs in a totally different movie.) In addition to the theatrical trailer, some welcome new TV spots have been added along with a gallery of promotional and production shots (including some of those notorious gore shots). The TV spots are pretty fascinating actually, with three US and one UK samples reflecting different variations on that striking birthday cake / axe footage shot exclusively to promote the film. (And "no one will be seated during the last ten minutes!") The big new extra here is an audio commentary by the gang at The Hysteria Continues, revisiting a title that marked the very first entry in their long-running (and highly recommended) slasher podcast. Their affection for the film is contagious as they dive into the small but rich context of Canadian slasher films, the still-new conventions being explored at the time, the reasons for the film’s rather arbitrary shock twist ending, its censorship history, and plenty more. As usual, the label also includes a beautifully designed insert booklet featuring a wealth of material including press kit interviews (with Thompson and crew members Stuart Harding and Tom Burman), a Canadian Film Development Corporation assessment of the script, sample critical reviews from the original release, and an amusing marketing guide showing you how to "Throw a bizarre birthday party with a top-rated radio station!”