Virginia “Ginny” Wainwright is a member of the Top Ten, the popular clique at the elite Crawford Academy. The Top Ten soon shrinks, dwindling down to the Top Four in this who-done-it mystery that would make Agatha Christie beam and Scooby-Doo shiver.

Bloody Rundown

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Produced by longtime collaborators John Dunning and Andre Link, Canadian slasher Happy Birthday to Me was released shortly after their other holiday horror, My Bloody Valentine (1981). (Dunning and Link’s first horror, Satan’s Sabbath (1972), could also, for some questionables, be construed as their initial “holiday horror.”) They also produced David Cronenberg’s early features They Came from Within (1975) and Rabid (1977). Cronenberg reportedly regarded the two as “Canada’s Roger Corman.”

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For Happy Birthday to Me, Dunning and Link recruited screenwriter John C.W. Saxton, and his team, along with director J. Lee Thompson. Known for his thriller Cape Fear (1962), the acclaimed British director effectively created suspense throughout the entirety of Happy Birthday to Me.

hap14Although extremely well written, the initial screenplay omits a final twist as the killer is revealed before the concluding scene. Both producer Dunning and director Thompson felt the film needed a shocking climax, and at the very last minute they rewrote the final scene, concocting the now infamous twist.  

hap13This climactic revelation worked well on celluloid; yet, it was all the more grueling to both the cast and crew.

Early on in production, make-up artist Stephan Dupuis, a novice at the time, was replaced by Tom Burman. (Dupuis would later win an Academy Award for his talents in The Fly (1986).) With this last-minute replacement, along the impromptu climax, Burman was surely burdened with the highly-complex FX artistry that Happy Birthday to Me mandated. With his team, Burman devised gory creations, executing all the writers’ bizarre kills that hold-up by even today’s standards.

hap15hap28The impending Screen Actors Guild strike only exacerbated the schedule; yet, studios were motivated to purchase extra films. Columbia bought the film for $3.5 million, which delighted the producers who netted a $1 million profit. The studio hired Bo Harwood for the score and Lance Rubin for additional music including the end-credits song sung by Syreeta with lyrics by Molly-Ann Leikin. The music is creepy and flawlessly enhances the suspense, but, unfortunately, an official soundtrack was never issued.

In 2004, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the film on DVD. In a maneuver so baffling and reckless, not only did Sony completely change the haunting original score, but they also changed the original poster. This alternate score is garish and jarring, interfering with both the suspense of the film and the performances. It completely downgrades the film to made-for-TV status. I find it destructive and downright criminal to alter the artistry of a film 23-years after its release. (What brainiac decided to do this?!) Changing the original score of this film is akin to changing the score in Jaws (1975). Thankfully, Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment re-released the DVD in 2009 with both the film’s original poster and score.

hap17The film stars Melissa Sue Anderson as Ginny Wainwright, a character that was a fine departure from her more recognized role as straight-laced, long-suffering Mary Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie. Like Anderson’s, all the performances are exceptional. And aside from Anderson (who has since become a naturalized Canadian) and the now soap opera star Tracey E. Bregman, the majority of the film’s actors are, or were, Canadian. Lawrence Dane, who would later portray Braedon Keller in Scanners (1981) and Lt. Preston in Bride of Chucky (1998), plays Hal Wainwright, Ginny’s wealthy, widowed father. Mrs. Patterson, Crawford Academy’s uppity headmistress was portrayed by Frances Hyland, who also starred as Mrs. Grey in The Changeling (1980). Old-school mega movie star Glen Ford costars as psychiatrist Dr. Faraday. In spite of his minor yet essential role, Ford was paid the highest. Apparently, he accepted the role only for the money as he drank heavily on set and refused to promote the film, which he deemed inferior. Nonetheless, his depiction is pure perfection.

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Most of the film was shot at Loyola College in Montreal; there are, however, a few yet vague script references that the film takes place in New England. It is hard to imagine any American high school senior to evoke the sophistication and maturity of the Top Ten, which is why I always assumed the characters were predominately Canadian. Nonetheless, the film is quintessentially Canadian.

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In spite of the ending that some find farfetched, the creative kills and thrills in this birthday bloodfest warrant major praise.

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Die-Anne’s Diatribe

Ginny and her gang may be in the Top Ten, but this film is in my Top Five. And by the way, I love the final twist.

*Full Disclosure: Shockingly, there is very little written about this fantastic horror. My main source pertaining to the film’s production derives from Caelum Vatnsdal’s November 2004 article in Fangoria.

Plot Mutilator

In Progress…

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Deadly Details

Director ∞ J. Lee Thompson
Producers ∞ John Dunning, Stewart Harding, and Andre Link
Screenwriters ∞ Timothy Bond, Peter Jobin, and John Saxton
Music ∞ Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin
Cinematographer ∞ Miklos Lente
Editor ∞ Debra Karen
Makeup ∞ Jocelyne Bellemare, Thomas R. Burman, and Bob Pritchett (hairdresser)
Special Effects ∞ Gilles Aird, France Belisle, Louis Craig, Bill Doane, Jacques Godbout, King Hernandez, Warren Keillor, and Ron Ottesen
Distributor ∞ Columbia Pictures
Release Date ∞ May 1981
Running time ∞ 110 minutes
Country ∞ Canada
Language ∞ English
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Cast ∞
Melissa Sue Anderson as Virginia Wainwright
Glenn Ford as Dr. David Faraday
Lawrence Dane as Hal Wainwright
Sharon Acker as Estelle Wainwright
Frances Hyland as Mrs. Patterson
Tracey E. Bregman as Ann Thomerson
Jack Blum as Alfred Morris
Matt Craven as Steve Maxwell
Lenore Zann as Maggie
David Eisner as Rudihap31
Lisa Langlois as Amelia
Michel-René Labelle as Etienne Vercures
Richard Rebiere as Greg Hellman
Lesleh Donaldson as Bernadette O’Hara
Earl Pennington as Lieutenant Tracy
Murray Westgate as Gatekeeper
Jerome Tiberghien as Prof. Heregard
Maurice Podbrey as Dr. Feinblum
Vlasta Vrana as Bartender
Walter Massey as Conventioneer Leader
Griffith Brewer as Verger
Alan Katz as Ann’s Date
Ron Lea as Amelia’s Date
Terry Haig as Feinblum’s Assistant
Karen Stephen as Ms. Calhoun
Louis Del Grande as Surgeonhap19
Nick Kilbertus as Anesthetist
Damir Andrei as Junior Surgeon
Gina Dick as Waitress Ingrid
Stephanie Miller as Hospital Nurse
Steven Mayoff as Police Officer
Aram Barkev as Conventioneer
Alan Barnett as Conventioneer
Paul Board as Conventioneer
Marc DeGagne as Conventioneer
Bruce Gooding as Conventioneer
Victor Knight as Conventioneer
Rollie Nincheri as Conventioneer
Keith Sutherland as Conventioneer
Herbert Vool as Conventioneerhap8
Len Watt as Conventioneer
Joe Wertheimer as Conventioneer
Nancy Allan as Cheerleader
Karen Hynes as Cheerleader
Tracy-Marie Langdon as Cheerleader
Debbie McGellin as Cheerleader
Kathy Reid as Cheerleader
Lori Timmons as Cheerleader
Debbie Tull as Cheerleader
Lynn Wilson as Cheerleader