HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME
Alas, by the 1980s, J. Lee Thompsons career was well on the way down towards indifferently accepting whatever assignment paid the bills for him ahead for him would be the astonishingly bad remake of King Solomons Mines (1985) and a slew of dreary Charles Bronson vehicles for Cannon Films. Seeing Happy Birthday to Me, it is hard to believe such a crudely pitched film could come from the same person who directed Cape Fear. Other works of the era like the Friday the 13th sequels stripped the slasher film down to a minimum of exposition; J. Lee Thompson, being an old school director from an entire different generation to John Carpenter, Sean S. Cunningham and co, plays by the book and lets the film operate more akin to a traditional psycho-thriller. Thus it is far more plotted than most of the slasher films where you keep expecting a series of stalk and slash sequences, Thompson only drags the show out with exposition.
Happy Birthday to Me has little going for it beyond the usual tedium of the slasher film. The film was advertised with the marketing campaign six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see. While the film never takes any award for on-screen originality in this department, it does serve up a mildly novel series of deaths that include:- Matt Craven getting a shish kebab in the head; Richard Rebiere being crushed by weights during a bench press; Michele Rene Labelle having his scarf thrown into the spokes of a motorcycle wheel. There are some very gory scenes of a surgeon cutting into a brain that are repeated several times, although it is not clear what they have to do with the rest of the film. Happy Birthday to Me does have nineteen-year-old Melissa Sue Anderson, Americas darling on tvs Little House on the Prairie (1974-83), as lead actress and the film gets an undeniable frisson when she abruptly turns and coldly shoves a shish-kebab skewer through Matt Cravens throat.
Purportedly, there never was intended to be a twist ending to the film until the producers insisted that one be created during shooting as a result, it comes without any lead-up or even making much sense. This emerges first with [PLOT SPOILERS] Melissa Sue Anderson sitting down her birthday party surrounded by the bodies of all the victims and then what seems like a twin of herself who is revealed to be the killer, before this is shown to be a lifelike face mask worn by her best friend (Tracy Bregman) who we thought we had seen killed earlier. Why the friend wears the mask and how all of this relates to the flashbacks to Melissa Sues birthday party disaster from five years earlier, which we get the impression the killings were conducted in revenge for, or for that matter to the death of her mother, her amnesia about what happened and the brain surgery scenes, is a mystery.
J. Lee Thompsons other films of genre interest are: the classic revenge psycho-thriller Cape Fear (1962), the occult film Eye of the Devil (1967), the Communist China spy thriller The Chairman/The Most Dangerous Man in the World (1969), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975), the Western The White Buffalo (1977) with Charles Bronson hunting a mythic buffalo, 10 to Midnight (1983) with Charles Bronson vs a serial killer, and the utterly dire adventure film King Solomons Mines (1985). J. Lee Thompson also co-wrote the scripts for the very strange psycho-thriller East of Piccadilly (1940) and the bizarre time travel/adventure film Future Hunters (1986).
Full film available online here:-