In the early ‘80s, slasher movies were in full bloom. Everyone was doing their best to follow up the success of Friday the 13th and Halloween. Every single calendar date was getting its own feature, from New Year’s Evil down to Silent Night, Deadly Night and April Fool’s Day. When Happy Birthday to Me burst onto the scene, there weren’t a lot of calendar-coinciding slashers. There were a few but the rest were offerings like The Prowler, Terror Train, or The Burning.
Even in the dozens upon dozens of slashers we got in the early ‘80s, Happy Birthday to Me manages to stand out. It does this by being surprisingly character-driven. It sets itself apart by being incredibly stylish, but more than anything… it stands out for being completely nonsensical and quite bizarre.
These elements only make the film more interesting. It feels different from other slashers of the era. There’s not a lot to compare it to its contemporaries, except maybe the color palate. It feels like a different type of feature, even if it follows the same basic formula.
And that’s because Happy Birthday to Me is pretty much a giallo. Sure, it’s labeled as a slasher and it meets those standards, but it’s much more in line with the slasher’s Italian predecessor. It’s strange to think about because gialli are traditionally thought of as a specifically Italian thing, but there are American films I would throw into that category. Dressed to Kill and Alice, Sweet Alice are perfect examples. So, it’s not entirely unheard of.
Happy Birthday to Me introduces us to characters that are genuinely interesting—especially the lead—which is important, considering that it has a longer than normal runtime for a slasher. Gialli often tended to run longer, though, taking as much time to build up the atmosphere as pace out the kills. While the scares come early, there’s a lot of time spent getting to know the cast of characters. And that actually helps to make the deaths more intense.
And the death scenes are outlandish, as you’d expect both from any good slasher or giallo. They are elaborate, inventive, and totally brutal.
Even in the deaths, though, there’s something off kilter that you wouldn’t normally see in a slasher. A character might appear to get killed and then be revealed to be alive, only to get killed for real. There might be a lot of false scares, and misdirection but that’s half the fun.
These tricks of the trade are standard practice for gialli. Happy Birthday to Me is not overly concerned with internal logic. The movie doesn’t need to make sense and we don’t really need it to make sense because we’re just along for the ride. It’s not even necessarily a matter of style over substance. The film has a lot going for it, from the performances to the interesting structure. But a lot of the appeal is on a stylistic level. It’s features great use of heavy shadows, really bright reds (including the blood) and deep blues, all of which are staples of giallo, particularly the work of Dario Argento.
Director J. Lee Thompson’s influences are clear. But when we get to the ending of Happy Birthday to Me, that’s where it stops just being inspired by the giallo films of yesteryear and earns its place among them. The ending is, frankly, insane. It just keeps going. There are about five endings stacked on top of each other, unraveling like a ball of yarn, each reveal weirder than the last. But that’s not a bad thing, it’s actually really, really entertaining. But it throws you for a loop when watching it for the first time. For example, the first reveal we get can’t possibly make any sense because of what we already know to be true . So, we have reason not to buy into it. But then the next reveal makes even less sense to the point where we’re revealing that certain characters are wearing masks designed in the likeness of other character’s faces so that you can never really know what’s going on, even when you rewatch it.
That’s another big key, for me. A lot of the fun of slashers is going back and seeing if there are any major clues as to the killer’s identity once you know who it is. With some of even the best giallos you can’t really do that because the structure and the identity of the killer aren’t defined in such a clear-cut manner. It’s virtually impossible to go back and watch Happy Birthday to Me trying to see the clues as to who the killer is and what happens at the end. You really can’t, but that’s okay because that’s not what the feature is setting you up for. It’s not about who does what. It’s about whether or not you enjoy it and whether or not you see any of the surprises coming.
Happy Birthday to Me may not be a logical movie, but it is a more artistic endeavor than many of its contemporaries and I think that’s a major part of why it’s stood the test of time. It stands out among the early slashers because it’s different. It wears its Italian influences on its sleeve and earns its place as one of the rare American-made gialli.