HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME: Lesser Known Holiday Slashers [Two Cents] – With Guest Programmer Robb Antequera

Columbia Pictures

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: Happy Birthday To Me, guest programmed by Robb Antequera

When Cinapse staffer Justin Harlan wanted to go to bat for lesser known holiday-themed slasher films this month centered around Valentine, I knew I had to reach out to Robb Antequera, Action Twitter’s biggest slasher evangelist, to guest program something for us. And he did not disappoint. Robb is one of the hosts of Chainsaws & Claws: A Killer/Monster Podcast, a horror podcast that discusses slasher movies and monster movies, as well as the host of the Wrath of Stath podcast, which covers the films of Jason Statham, and runs the website Bloodfist Forever, which celebrates the Bloodfist franchise, starring Martial Arts icon Don “The Dragon” Wilson. 

Guest Programmer

Robb Antequera

I have to be honest; the first time I watched this, I practically hated it. I found it to be too long, slow, and filled with enough eccentric soap opera theatrics to power an entire season of Riverdale.

However, it sat with me after that initial viewing, compelling me to revisit it in the near future. That time, I liked it a little more. I liked it more on the next revisit, and the next, and so on & so forth. I guess you can say I’m a fan now. But why? What was it about this film that just kept me coming back to it? If I had to answer, it’s because this film understands what made the partial inspiration for the entire slasher genre in America work: the Giallo.

This film is straight up an American Giallo, and when viewed as such, all of its creative choices make complete sense. The bizarre death scenes, the lively group of main characters, the melodramatic nature of it all, and the stylish, atmospheric direction, handled by one of the most dependable journeymen directors to ever exist, Mr. J. Lee Thompson, whose involvement in this film I’ve found to be unique in itself.

For example, most slasher films, in that era and beyond, were directed by young prodigies we never heard from again, or older professionals who had been in the business for years but never made a feature before, and had no real care for the material. Yet here was Thompson, director of classics such as The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear, directing this bloody slasher film. Could you imagine someone like Harold Becker directing Urban Legend? Or Alan J. Pakula directing I Know What You Did Last Summer? It’s really fascinating. At least to me it is.

Nevertheless, Thompson treated the material with the same amount of respect he gave his older Hollywood films, and it shows. There’s a level of professionalism on display here that the Slasher genre had yet to see. Yes, I’m aware the original Halloween and Black Christmas came out prior to this, but those were lower budgeted productions whose directors had yet to make their mark, while Happy Birthday to Me had more money and an old Hollywood pro at its disposal, and those extra incentives just give the film a nicer, classier sheen that the entire genre wouldn’t see for a while.

That plot twist still comes way out of left field, though.

(@TheCineDrunkie on X)
Columbia Pictures

The Team

Ed Travis

Happy Birthday To Me’s giallo inspired chaotic energy, as well as our overall “lesser known holiday themed holiday slashers” theme this month, has got me thinking about the slasher genre. I feel like I would consider iconic franchises like Halloween or Friday the 13th to be slasher films, but at the center of those is an all-powerful supernatural monster who will not stop ever, until you are dead. Yet it seems more often than not the slasher genre has that mystery component at the center. Who is that masked killer and how many red herrings can we throw in and what will be the absurd justification for their murderous rampage by the end? It’s like slashers owe their success to the mystery genre as much as to the horror genre. But all those kills and wild red herrings sometimes lead to a story that is simply batshit crazy, and that is where Happy Birthday To Me confidently makes its home. Walking so that Malignant could one day run, HBTM’s Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson) is an incredibly troubled protagonist with a backstory that just gets crazier as the story progresses. This was a great follow up to our earlier entry this month: April Fool’s Day, which had lots of similar plot twists and turns. But where April Fool’s Day’s plot mechanics foretold a future of meta storytelling, HBTM harkens back to the wildly glorious gialli of the 1970s. In the end, I’m not here to say that Happy Birthday To Me makes even a lick of damn sense. It most certainly does not. But I respect the insanity it strives for and recommend slasher fans seek out this bizarre slasher that would benefit greatly from a chaser screening of Malignant.  

PS: Eli Roth has to have taken some inspiration from this film for his recent holiday themed slasher Thanksgiving.

(@Ed_Travis on X)
Columbia Pictures

Julian Singleton

From a haunting opening piano track that evoked the quiet sinister moods of The Changeling, I knew I had to quickly adjust all expectations for Happy Birthday to Me compared to the more unabashedly comedic April Fool’s Day. J. Lee Thompson’s slasher is still a fun ride, but I loved just how wickedly nasty it was wiling to get over the course of its surprisingly hefty runtime. The plot is more an excuse to string along audiences from one set-piece to the next–aside from Melissa Sue Anderson’s Virginia, much of the ensemble cast are one-note and paper-thin. Each plays into a trope of general high school life (the jock, the jokester, the exchange student, etc.), with the audience only being given as much information as needed about these characters before they wander into their own creepy mode of slaughter. However, Thompson manages to flex some particularly noteworthy budgetary skills here, from two key sequences involving cars jumping a highway drawbridge, resulting underwater sequences, a creepy cornering in a church belfry, and more. 

What sold me on Happy Birthday, though, was how each of Thompson’s bizarre slasher sequences are handled with a surprising amount of suspense and gravitas, even when employing some ridiculous instruments of death. The standouts for me were the gruesome dispatches of exchange student Etienne and jock Greg; Etienne’s death feels like it takes perverse inspiration from the death of poet Isadora Duncan, with our killer taking creative liberties with Etienne’s scarf and motorbike, while Greg’s passion for lifting weights takes a crushing turn. Both sequences are mined for as much tension as they’re worth, pivoting between the hilarious and horrifying on a dime. The long-awaited fountains of blood make for an incredible payoff, regardless of how thin the setups for these deaths may be. 

I was also surprised by how effective the underlying theme of familial abandonment was between Virginia and her father. While Thompson and company spin Virginia’s trauma into frenzied giallic heights, the crushing moments that provide the foundation for such terror felt wholly earned–lending the ending tableau of a birthday party full of corpses an unexpectedly tragic and touching tone. However, I was disappointed by the film’s impulse to add yet another red herring here after a film already stuffed with so many false leads. It felt like a fundamental mistrust in the confidence of the story when this was an element that Thompson and writers Timothy Bond, Peter Jobin, and John Saxton should own the most. 

Setting aside the weaknesses of its characters and conclusion, Happy Birthday to Me’s memorable and well-executed murder set pieces anchored by a tragic and committed performance by Melissa Sue Anderson make it well worth multiple revisits. 

(@gambit1138 on X)
Columbia Pictures

Austin Vashaw

I’m a fan of both 80s horror and director J. Lee Thompson, but apparently not the intersection thereof. I expected to enjoy Happy Birthday to Me but for some reason it missed me hard. The film revolves around a central murder mystery premise, but rather than being intrigued I was filled with impatient annoyance with the dopey characters and the convoluted nonsense of the plot. Even the great Glenn Ford seems to be sleepwalking through his supporting role.

There are some neat kills, and I noticed a pretty sweet split diopter shot, and I was fond of a certain plot point that hangs on the visually exciting idea of a car getting stuck in the fissure of a drawbridge as it raises, but a handful of interesting bits and an absurd twist ending just aren’t enough to propel this forward.

Interestingly, Robb mentions that he had similar misgivings on his first viewing (and I’m definitely with him on having massive respect for J. Lee Thompson), so maybe this is one I’ll want to revisit with fresh eyes in a few years.

(@vforvashaw on X)
Columbia Pictures

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And We’re Out.

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