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John’s Old School Horror Corner: Happy Birthday to Me (1981), a great “bad” 80s horror/slasher flick with plot twists and integrity

May 31, 2014

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MY CALL: This is truly a “great” bad horror movie and it has more integrity than others of its generation. Although I wouldn’t recommend it to gorehounds, fans of classic 80s slashers will enjoy it.

Remember the days when all horror was rated R? Yeah, I miss the 80s, too. Those were the good old days when everything was either good or “bad” good. I’d call this particular 80s film a “great bad” horror.

Happy Birthday to Me 1

Let’s meet this movies spoiled brats… The one on the far right looks like Jeremy Sisto and Sean Pean’s lovechild.

Happy Birthday to Me 2

Meet Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson). She’s one of the smartest and most popular kids in school, but she suffers from memory loss and blackouts. Now, in the days leading up to her 18th birthday, her hip clique friends begin dying one by one in strange ways and many of them begin acting strangely.

As her friends become defensive, aggressive and damn near homicidal, Virginia slowly regains traumatic memories from her past. However, she also seems to be seeing some things that her friends aren’t seeing. All the while we are left to wonder just who is killing all these privileged private school brats? After the first kills, all we know for sure is that the victims know their killer. Is the killer the now mentally unhinged Virginia, or one of her snotty privileged friends?

Grin-worthy 80s lameness abounds. From the opening sequence we have a lame strangling which is salvaged by a most spirited struggle by our hysterical coed victim. The deaths range from ho-hum quality to laugh-out-loud hilarity. My favorite kill involves giving a mean spot while someone is doing bench presses, which of course reminded me of Killer Workout (1987; aka Aerobicide) and Death Spa (1989).

Happy Birthday to Me 3 bench press

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And the deliciously macabre birthday scene at the end smacks of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

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Happy Birthday to Me 5

The gore was definitely adequate for its time, but nothing special. This film is clearly more for classically bad 80s slasher fans than sloshy gorehounds, and this lacks the level of zany gore suggested by the DVD cover art. Fans of the 80s will be pleased to see Lisa Langlois (The Nest, Phobia). And by the way, this was directed by J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes)!

Happy Birthday to Me 4

Not as sensational as I expected this scene to be.

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Maybe what sets this 80s slasher most apart from the rest is that it is filled with red herrings. Virginia’s flashbacks, blackouts and possible hallucinations combined with her friends’ changing behavior offer ample opportunity to misdiagnose the killer. The ending packs such a twisted punch that it would make the plot of a Mexican soap opera seem plausibly reasonable.

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This 80s slasher maintains a great deal more integrity than its peers as well. There is no nudity and some effort was clearly placed in constructing the twist-rich plot. I’ll say that again, this is a low budget 80s horror/slasher flick with a thoughtfully made plot. That never happens! That’s reason enough to consider it worth seeing. But, plot aside, this is fun in its own right anyway. I really enjoyed it.

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