Anchor Bay // 1981 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // September 11th, 2009
It'll be a killer party!
This proto-slasher from the dawn of the '80s hits DVD. Fans of Little House on the Prairie who have been clamoring for Melissa Sue Anderson to getting her stab on will not want to miss this.
Anderson is Ginny Wainwright, a student at the preppie Crawford Academy. There, she runs with a group of friends who like to hang out, drink beer, pick fights with geriatrics from the Lions Club, and risk their lives driving over raised drawbridges. It's the typical teenage tomfoolery, but the good times are about to cease, when the group realizes there's a deranged killer on the loose, picking them off one by one.
Ginny is at the center of it somehow. As she struggles to reconcile the current rash of brutal violence with a traumatic event that happened to her years ago, the blood continues to spill and one guy is about to get intimately acquainted with the business end of a kabob.
Apparently that "kabob kill" is the central, iconic image of the film, and it's hard to argue with that. The kill doesn't make much sense -- I don't know how much torque it takes to ram a meat stick into a grown man's brainpan, but I'm pretty sure anyone without the benefit of a pneumatic-powered bionic arm would be hard-pressed to pull it off -- but it's weird, creative, slightly messy, and fits in perfectly with the selection of deaths that precede it, such as motorcycle tire face friction and crushed by a bench-press. The mayhem isn't nearly over-the-top gory as what we've come to expect from our modern slasher flicks, but it's three loaves of good times nonetheless!
As much fun as I had with the pseudo-violence, I have to give props to the bananas plot as my favorite aspect of the film. The game plan of the mysterious-perpetrator is followed, with no revelation of the identity until the home-stretch. Even then, when the mask comes off, there are still more than a few twists to come. Forget M. Night Shyamalan, writer John Saxton and director J. Lee Thompson throw in a kilo of twists. It's not until three minutes before the end credits roll, that the full expanse of the killer and his/her motivations are revealed in their entirety. Granted, the exposition is overwrought and the revelations are borderline ridiculous, but we're talking about a movie where a guy doesn't have the presence of mind to drop his weight bar before it falls down and crushes his larynx. Ridiculous works here.
How about Melissa Sue Anderson? We're a long way from the prairie, and seeing Mary Ingalls running around in a bra playing with bloody knives is just another off-putting image in a series of off-putting images -- capped by the disturbing final sequence, the ghoulish "birthday party" from where the film derives its name.
All in all, Happy Birthday to Me is an entertaining, sometimes goofy, piece of retro horror that slasher fans should track down. The DVD is appreciated, as is the decent-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, but the total lack of extras -- not so much.
Not Guilty, despite the no-frills DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R