Sunday, December 9, 2018

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981) (Retro-VHS Blu-ray Review)

Retro-VHS Blu-ray Edition 

Label: Mill Creek Entertainment
Rating: R
Duration: 111 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Cast: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker, Frances Hyland, Lenore Zann, Lisa Langlois, Michel Rene Labelle, Lesleh Donaldson

In this early 80's slasher directed by J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear) we have a setting at the elite Crawford Academy's high school, where a group of popular teens form a click known as the Top Ten, they seem to have it all, but someone is killing them off. This is a movie I caught on cable TV back in the 80's, it's always stuck with me, starring a pair of my  childhood crushes, and blending American slasher-isms with a Euro-thriller notes, namely an endless parade of red-herrings and a black-gloved killer.

Our focus here is top ten member Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson, Little House on the Prairie) who had some weird experimental brain surgery some years back, which figures into the story. The identity of the killer is kept from us for a long while, it has a sort of giallo flavor you don't usually see in an 80s slasher. The first kill involves a black gloved killer with a sagtright-razor, but sadly the film is no 80s slasher blood fest, with the kills themselves a bit bloody but very tame. Director J.Lee Thompson was a solid director, but in his later years he found himself working for Canon Films, relegated to some sub-par action and adventure films, stuff like Death Wish 4 and King Solomon's Mines, but with this slasher he showed some great direction, and the movie is lensed quite nicely.


The kill are a lot of fun, featuring teens offed by the gassed-up rear tire of a motorbike, skewered by a shishkabob, and a guy having a hefty weight dropped on his balls while pumping some iron! It's all great stuff, nut the bloody payoff of each kill has been heavily edited, but the climax of this movie is so deliciously overwrought and WTF it erases anything that I had an issue with by that point. The reveal of the culprit's identity and reasoning in this one always leaves me reeling, and while I do think the movie is a bit too convoluted and over-plotted, I still count this is one of my favorite slashers of all time, it's just so dang fun. 

The film has a surprisingly great supporting cast, including the legendary Glen Ford (Pa Kdent from Donner's Superman!), and some lesser known, but no less solid actors, Lawrence Dane (Scanners), Lisa Langlois (Deadly Eyes) and Tracey E. Bregman who I had such a crush on as a kid, she having appeared on one of my mom's soap operas she use to watch in the 80's. 

Audio/Video: The film was previously available from Mill Creek Entertainment on a double-feature Blu-ray with with babysitter classic When a Stranger Calls (1979), now available in the U.S. as a proper stand alone Blu-ray, presented in 1080p HD and framed 1.85:1 widescreen. The slasher looks quite good, blacks are solid, the grain is well-managed. Audio comes by way of English DTS-HD MA 5.1 Stereo, with the original score from composers Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin, no subtitles are offered, and there are no extras for the film.

The single disc release comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with one sided sleeve of artwork, strangely they've gone with what looks to be a variation of the original DVD release, of a young woman (who's not in the film!) holding a birthday cake, it's ugly as sin. However, this release is part of the Retro-VHS Look collection from Mill Creek and features a slipcover with the original movie one-sheet, the one with the shiskabob skewering, that looks like a vintage VHS release with rental store stickers that label it horror, be kind rewind, and penalty stickers for not rewinding, not dissimilar to what MVD are doing with their MVD Rewind Collection. The disc also features an excerpt of the same key art as the slip, with one side of the spine looking like a VHS release, the other looks like the label from the VHS cassette, though I do wish they had used the skewering artwork for the wrap as well. 

Happy Birthday To Me (1981) is a pretty great slasher, it loses some points for being less bloody than others of the era but it's stylish, ludicrous and fun with a giallo bent and one hell of a shocker finale, just the way I like 'em. 

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