[box cover]

Happy Birthday to Me

Importing "psychological complexity" into a slasher film is almost always a mistake, mostly because it necessitates too much exposition in between the inventive kills, which seemed to be all that Happy Birthday to Me (1981) was offering based on its infamous poster depicting some poor sap getting a shish kebab skewer jammed up through the roof of his mouth (and while Columbia TriStar opted to go with different cover art for this DVD, they were good enough to include an insert featuring the aforementioned artwork). So, it's "six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see" spread very thinly over 111 minutes of moldy, post-Psycho narrative nonsense depicting an all-grown-up Melissa Sue Anderson ditching her beloved "Little House on the Prairie" persona to play Virginia Wainright, a member of a popular private school clique comprised of the wealthiest kids in town (you will know them by their striped Burberry scarves). Though brimming with intellectual potential, these troublemakers prefer to hang out at a nearby watering hole and brawl with the local Elks chapter. Virginia is, of course, the most sensitive of the group, owing no doubt to her fragile mental state, which may have been caused by some bizarre scientific experimentation in childhood. While her father is away on business, she is cared for by her shrink, Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford), who encourages her to plumb the depths of her half-forgotten past for clues as to why she's borderline psychotic. But as her psychosis is examined, her fellow clique-mates start getting murdered one by one, leading Virginia to suspect herself of these misdeeds. And while murder is not a course of action normally advocated the morally upright, there's an undeniable satisfaction in watching these pampered snobs get dispatched in a variety of creative ways. They really are a pretty loathsome lot, particularly the French letch Etienne, captain of the academy's motocross team, whose idea of suave courtship entails breaking into Virginia's house, stealing her panties, and returning them to her the following day. But the script, cobbled together by a committee of sub-par writers, is confused as to whether it wants to be a psychological thriller or a standard slasher flick in which the murderer's motive is revenge for some long-forgotten childhood wrong. As a result, the narrative is bloated and disjointed when it should be simple-minded and efficient, which renders the big surprise ending massively anti-climactic. Director J. Lee Thompson is a long way from his 1962 masterpiece Cape Fear, but he was only ever as good as his script, which means he's really quite awful here. (There's a completely left-field reference to High Noon midway through the picture that suggests Thompson is either mourning a bygone era of quality commercial filmmaking or wishing that he was as skilled a director as Fred Zinnemann.) Sure, it might look more professional than, say, The Burning, but this is a genre in which it's far better to be lurid and inept than tasteful and competent. However, in all fairness to Thompson, he would ditch the restraint that muzzled this film and go on to helm the enjoyably savage Charles Bronson flick 10 to Midnight two years later. Columbia TriStar presents Happy Birthday to Me in a decent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Extras are limited to theatrical trailers for similarly themed fare from the studio. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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