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HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker, Frances Hyland, Tracy Bregman, Lisa Langlois
Director:  J. Lee Thompson
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  None
Length:  111 Minutes
Release Date:  October 26, 2004

“I wanna hear all the gory details.”

Film **

As a youth working in my parents' video store in the early 80s, I was always intrigued by horror, but never allowed to watch it…probably the reason I'm kind of a scare movie junkie today.  I can remember rows and rows of videos with intriguing titles and cover art and wondering what kind of grisly euphoria laid inside, just out of the reach of my young impressionable mind.

One title that always piqued my interest was Happy Birthday to Me, though not for the usual reasons.  It was because as a lad, I had a big crush on Melissa Sue Anderson, who starred for awhile on TV's Little House on the Prairie.  But somehow, her connection to that wholesome family show or the rather harmless sounding title of this movie weren't enough to convince my mom and dad that the film was appropriate fare for their little boy.  Must have been the picture on the box of the guy getting skewered with a shish kebob…yep, that'll do it every time.

Now, as an adult with many years of horror watching expertise behind me, I finally got my chance to see it, thanks to Columbia Tri Star's DVD release.  And that expertise really put the experience in perspective for me.  I found Ms. Anderson to be just as luminous as I remembered, but that she starred in a film that was really par for the course for early 80s horror.  That is to say, no real character development or connection, no real scares (just kids getting dispatched in various ways), no atmosphere, and a conclusion that really reaches.

Virginia (Anderson) is an academy student and part of a clique of friends known as the Top Ten.  They drink, party, carouse and kick up their heels until one by one, they start to disappear.  They don't know what's going on, but fortunately we do, because we've seen the movie and they haven't…someone is picking them off in rather brutal ways.

Most of the horror of that time period focused on the grisly rather than the truly scary…they don't rattle your nerves so much as try your patience.  They do this not only by focusing on the acts of murder, but by constantly throwing false bread crumbs your way to keep you leaning toward the wrong conclusions.  In other words, the substance of the mystery is so weak that the filmmakers have to manipulate you into thinking something more was there.  There's a whole back story that gets played out time and time again with Virginia that has NOTHING to do with anything.  By the time the tale reaches it's bloody end, you're left with a conclusion that feels horribly tacked on and contrived.

Still, in its day, the film was well received by horror fans and became a regularly rented-out title in our store.  But in retrospect, it doesn't seem to earn a place in the genre's history.  It's not a landmark, nor a significant stepping stone from one era to the next.  It's merely a reflection of the tastes and formula of its time.  You look at it and see how horror once was, but get no real feeling for where it came from or where it was going after that.

Those who remember the film from their younger days will probably still get a superficial charge out of it, but for modern fans who have seen a lot better, Happy Birthday to Me is little more than a somewhat agreeable way to pass a couple of hours.

Video ***

Considering the age, I think this anamorphic transfer from Columbia Tri Star will strike many as better than they expected.  It's a pretty clean print, with little to nothing noticeable in the way of aging artifacts, spots, scratches or undue grain, even in the many darker sequences.  Colors may be a tad muted, but for an unrestored 25 year old picture, it's nothing to worry about. 

Audio **

The stereo offering is pretty clean, if a bit thin sounding, with some great cheesy 80s music to make it more fun.  Dialogue is clear throughout, but dynamic range is expectedly flat.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Happy Birthday to Me is a pretty typical example of horror from its time period; nothing more, nothing less.  Ms. Anderson's lovely face doesn't quite elevate the material.  If you're a fan, you'll enjoy having this on DVD, but other horror lovers might want to blow out the candles and wish for something better.

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