One of the remaining un-released slasher classics released during the banner year of 1981 has finally hit DVD. Along with THE BURNING, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME has been highly-anticipated on the digital format by slasher-enthusiasts for some time now. While THE BURNING has no official R1 release date yet (though is rumored to be in the works for 2005) we at least now have HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. But was it worth the wait?
Someone is killing off members of Crawford Academy's elite top ten in fantastically inventive ways. All the while, top ten member Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson) continually has flashbacks to some type of traumatic brain surgery she underwent years ago. Is there some connection between the bizarre brain surgery and the murders, or is something even more sinister afoot at Crawford Academy?
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is pure slasher fun from beginning to end (especially "end" but I'll get to that). All the tired-but-fun trademarks of the sub-genre are present here and used effectively. The cast is fun and fairly likable, including slasher veterans Lesleh Donaldson (CURTAINS, FUNERAL HOME) and the lovely Lenore Zann (VISITING HOURS, AMERICAN NIGHTMARE). The film is well-directed by the late J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, CAPE FEAR), feeling a bit slicker than most other sub-genre entries of the time period. When a poster promises you "six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see," it's a pretty tall statement to live up to. However, despite trimming by the MPAA, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME does contain some very impressive and creative death sequences. Everything from a motorcycle to a shish kebob is used as a murder weapon. The physical presence of the killer is limited to hands and legs, mostly. In a mysterious, giallo sort of way, this is fairly effective.
Containing twist after twist after twist, the ending to HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is one of my all-time favorite slasher movie endings. Sure it's a little over the top and improbable, but so what? It'll widen your eyes and make you say "What???" If the movie has a major flaw, it lies in the screenplay. The plot is often a bit convoluted, lending a sense of "What's going on?" at times. Perhaps there is a 'red herring' or two too many, but it's not so confusing as to be un-enjoyable. Another flaw (in this release only, though) is the film's musical score, but I'll get more into that in a moment. As for the gore, the back of the case claims the running time is 111 min. My old VHS copy says "Approx. 108 Min." I didn't notice any added or uncut footage on the disc, so I'm thinking one of the two was a misprint. This is, as far as I can tell, the same VHS R-rated cut.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is pretty impressive. Most scenes appear a bit dark, but I believe this was just the way it was filmed. Fleshtones run a tad red at times, but slightly noticeable grain and dirt appears only in a handful of scenes. Otherwise, this was a very clear and clean transfer. While it still looks its age, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME certainly looks great for the most part. I was impressed, and most other fans of the film should be extremely pleased at the transfer.
As for the audio: Before watching the film on DVD, I heard rumors of Columbia "re-scoring" the film. My worst fears were that if this were true, Columbia would give it some sort of modern score. Based on the "hip" new cover artwork they gave the disc, I figured they'd want people to assume it were a modern direct-to-video flick. One assumption of mine was false. All of the replaced music seems to be period though not quite the correct period the entire time. The original VHS' creepy, low-key piano and strings piece has been replaced by a fast-paced disco song, appropriately titled "Out of the Blue." This change completely alters the tone of the beginning of the film from "spooky" to "fun." No big deal, I guess. "Fun" is okay for a slasher film, right? But the music changes don't end there, folks. A different piece of instrumental music is used during the opening kill sequence as well. This particular piece sounds very much like an early 70s giallo. Other changes aren't as great or noticeable. For instance, the scene where Melissa Sue Anderson is undressing for her shower originally contained a cheesy, sleazy instrumental piece that sounded as if it had come straight out of a 70s porno film. Its replacement on the DVD also sounds like it came out of a porno, although it's a completely different piece of music altogether. During the dance hall sequence, the disco instrumentals of the VHS version have been replaced by two actual songs with lyrics. Other selections in the film range in sound from something you'd hear on a rerun of CHiPs to a piece sounding Disney-esque. Some music cues in the VHS are completely gone and scored to no music on the DVD, and vice versa.
At first, I thought perhaps there was some sort of rights issue with the original score that prevented Columbia from retaining it. However, certain aspects of the situation just don't fit with that scenario. The original composers (Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin) are still credited on the disc and film, the end credits song is still there, and some of the added music includes actual songs with lyrics, not just generic instrumentals. Assuming there were "rights-issues" with Harwood and Rubin's music, why are they still credited, despite the presence of new music? Why are none of the new songs listed in the end credits or on the back of the box? Wouldn't this open Columbia up to a potential lawsuit from the original artists of these songs, should they become aware of the situation? And again, why is the original end title song still there? The original opening titles piece was nothing more than an instrumental version of this. If the closing song is there, for all intents and purposes, this opening music should be there as well.
So, my theory, based upon everything I've learned regarding this film and viewing this disc: Columbia has used the wrong print. I've read that after picking up the film, Columbia changed the score around a bit before releasing it to theaters. Perhaps what they used for the DVD was a pre-release version of the film with the un-altered score. The music fits too well with the on-screen action for it to have just been slapped together for the purposes of switching due to rights-issues. Also, it takes a good deal of time and money to re-score a film, even if you're using stock music from somewhere else. I just don't understand why Columbia would have gone to all the trouble required to do this. To my knowledge, they have never done this before. For these reasons, I am fairly certain that this music WAS intended to be the score for this film at some point during its production history. This new score does at times affect the tone of the film, and as a result, it's not quite the film we all remember and love (especially at the beginning.) In a cheesy, early 80s slasher sort of way, the opening disco music isn't all that bad. It actually grew on me. Had it been the original opening, I could've lived with it. It's a fun, catchy little disco tune. However, having heard the other music with the opening, I can't help but feel that this just isn't right. The audio quality is greatly affected by this somewhat erratic score. The first bar scene in particular, the music seems to be overpowered by and lumped together with the dialogue and sounds of the bar atmosphere. The result comes across more as noise, instead of a properly arranged and re-mastered audio track. I can't help but feel that with the correct audio track, a lot of these audio quality problems could have been avoided. Also included are English, Japanese, and Spanish subtitles.
The disc's only bonus materials are trailers for I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, IDENTITY, and RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE. No actual trailer for HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is supplied. The disc's non-animated menus are also pretty un-spectacular.
Let's talk about cover art for a moment. This disc has the absolute ugliest, most embarrassing Photoshop hack-job that I have ever seen. Yes, Columbia has given us real doozies before (REAL GENIUS, MURDER BY DEATH), but this is even bad by those standards. First of all, the girl on the cover isn't in the actual film. Second, she has glowing eyes. What, do they think this is a vampire, UFO, or zombie movie all of a sudden? Third, despite its logic loopholes and occasional silliness, the film does NOT contain a castle. I cannot stress this enough. That said, there IS both a birthday cake and a knife in the film. However, due to negative early word regarding the cover when it leaked to the net, fans e-mailed Columbia with their thoughts. Probably too late to change the artwork, Columbia has now decided to include the film's original "shish kebob" theatrical 1-sheet artwork on one side of the included insert (a sticker on the front packaging even advertises this inclusion, as further proof that Columbia listened to fans). The back of the insert contains critical praise from such websites as Hysteria Lives and even one from "Dawson's Creek" executive producer, Paul Stupin (who is apparently a fan of both the film and the sub-genre). Also of note on the back cover of the disc, is the appearance of a rare publicity still from what appears to be a scene that was deleted from the movie.
Now, the hardest question I've had to ask myself for this review is the question everyone wants to know: Is the disc worth a look? Yes and no. If this is indeed the original pre-Columbia score, then a true slasher rarity has hit DVD and is well worth a look for fans and collectors. Want to see how different a film is with a different score? This disc provides a stellar example of the evolution films can go through. However, at the high price point Columbia is asking (around twenty bucks online) I really can't justify a purchase. The disc has virtually no bonus features, a decent transfer, and a strange new musical score. I guess it just depends on how much all this is worth to you. It's a good film, even despite the sometimes-distracting score, and people who have never seen the film before, aren't likely to think the audio issue is even that big of a deal. IF this was a genuine mistake and the wrong print was used, there's no real reason to be upset with Columbia, as no harm was intended. However, if they were simply too cheap to pay for music rights or worse, if they felt the urge to re-score it for modern audiences, then I do point a blaming finger at them. One day, I suppose, we shall find out the truth. (NOTE: I contacted Columbia for their side of the story regarding the disc's audio changes. As of this writing, I have still received no reply) (Wes Ray)
BACK TO REVIEWS