While not prosecuted for obscenity, the film was seized and confiscated in the UK under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 during the video nasty panic.
Virginia "Ginny" Wainwright is a pretty and popular high school senior at Crawford Academy. She is one of her school's "Top Ten," an elite clique which comprises as the richest, most popular and most snobbish teens at the Academy. The Top Ten meets every night at a nearby pub; the Silent Woman Tavern.
One night en route to the tavern, Top Ten member Bernadette O'Hara is attacked in her car by a faceless assailant. Unable to flee, she struggles then plays dead to catch the killer off-guard before running to get help. She then pleads her case to someone whom she is familiar with, only to have her throat slit by the person with a straight razor who is actually the killer.
The Top Ten becomes concerned when Bernadette fails to show up at the Silent Woman. They soon get over it when their argument with another patron (a conventioneer) results in one of them putting a mouse into his beer. Mayhem ensues and the Top Ten flee the scene.
On the way home, the Top Ten see a drawbridge going up and decides to play a game of chicken. All cars in the game attempt to make it across before the bridge is completely raised (to allow the passing of ferries). A protesting Ginny is shoved into a car by fellow Top Ten member Ann Thomason. Every car jumps the drawbridge save one. As the car goes over the drawbridge, Ginny yells "Mother!" and makes it across safe. After the car stops, Ginny runs from the vehicle into the darkness.
On the way home she stops by her mother's grave to tell her she's now popular and accepted by the Top Ten. Ginny is confronted by her father about coming home after her curfew. Unbeknownst to either of them, Top Ten member Etienne Vercoures, a French foreign exchange student has followed her home before she was encountered by him. He enters Ginny's room and steals her underwear and escapes without being detected. She then discovers her window was open. As she runs to slam it shut, she heard a noise and screams.
The next day when she and Ann arrived late at school to class, school principal Mrs. Patterson threatens the Top Ten with the banning of ever going to The Silent Woman after hours. She notices Bernadette is missing and promises to sort out the matter. As Ginny and the Top Ten dissect a frog, we see Ginny recall a memory regarding her birthday.
Ginny shares a handful of lost repressed memories with her on-call psychiatrist, Dr. David Faraday. She underwent an experimental medical procedure, involving surgery to restore brain tissue, after surviving a harrowing accident at the drawbridge.
As Ginny attempts to resume her normal life, her fellow Top Ten members are being murdered in vicious and violent ways: Etienne gets strangled when his scarf is caught in the spokes of his motorcycle as blood splatters. (à la Isadora Duncan) and Greg gets his neck crushed while lifting weights. And yet, the killer who always sports a pair of black gloves is never seen. Until one night, Top-Ten member Alfred, who's had a crush on Ginny, follows her to her mother's grave and is then stabbed with a pair of garden shears by Ginny.
On the weekend of Ginny's 18th birthday, Mr. Wainwright leaves to go on a business trip. After a school dance, Ginny invites Steve, another member of the Top Ten to her place for a midnight snack. She prepares shish kabobs and feeds him while they drink wine and smoke weed. Then, Steve unsuspectingly leaves his mouth open and Ginny, in a murderous rage, shoves the kabob skewer violently through his head, leaving little doubt that Ginny may be the killer at this point.
The following morning, when Ann arrives at her house, Ginny is taking a shower fighting to remember everything up to that point. In flashbacks, the following is revealed that Ginny's mother, a newly inducted socialite, invited the Top Ten to Ginny's birthday celebration four years earlier. Instead, the Top Ten went to Ann's party. Drunk and unstable, Mrs. Wainwright confronted the groundskeeper. Mrs. Wainwright learned that she's had a reputation as being the town whore. Neither she nor her daughter were welcome at the Thomasons. This led to Mrs. Wainwright's attempt to drive across a bridge that was in the process of opening. In the middle of a rainstorm, with Ginny screaming, her mother finally stopped in the middle of the bridge as each side were still raising. The car fell in between the bridge halves as Mrs. Wainwright drowned in the car and Ginny swam to safety.
Ginny realizes that she may have killed her friends after all, including Ann who had just paid her a visit. With Ginny's 18th birthday steadily approaching, she struggles to get answers from Dr. Faraday. When he fails to provide any, she kills him with a fireplace poker.
Mr. Wainwright returns home from his business trip ready to celebrate his daughter's 18th birthday. When he entered the house, he sees blood and frantically flees the house and attempts to locate Ginny. Instead, Mr. Wainwright finds Greg's girlfriend Amelia in the middle of a rainstorm in shock in the courtyard clutching a gift. His late wife's grave (which recently has been robbed) with Dr. Faraday's corpse in it. Entering a cottage which serves as the Wainwrights' guest quarters, he makes a grisly discovery.
The corpses of all the murdered Top Ten members are seated around the table which has been set to look exactly as it did four years ago. The corpse of Mrs. Wainwright is also seated there as well. Ginny then enters carrying a large cake and singing "Happy Birthday" to herself. Already distraught, Mr. Wainwright bursts into tears when his daughter casually admits to committing the murders. Ginny then slits her father's throat. He never sees the real Ginny who is sedated, seated at the table as the killer's only living guest.
Ginny's doppelganger rants about having done all of this for Ginny, who then awakens to discover that the second Ginny is really Ann in disguise. Ann has been embittered by the revelation of her father's affair with Ginny's mother. It turns out that both girls are half-sisters. Ann slaughtered the six main members of the clique who never showed up for her birthday party, expressly for the purpose of framing Ginny. Ginny then takes control of Ann's knife and kills her with it.
As she stands over her half-sister's corpse, a detective walks in on Ginny and the horrifying carnage that surrounds her. He stares at Ginny and demands: "What have you done?" The audience is then left to wonder if Ginny will be cleared of the killings or arrested for them. The film ends as Ginny singing "Happy Birthday To Me" to herself as the screen cuts to black.Melissa Sue Anderson as Virginia "Ginny" Wainwright
Glenn Ford as Dr. David Faraday
Lawrence Dane as Harold "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 Rudi
Michel-René Labelle as Etienne Vercures
Richard Rebiere as Greg Hellman
Lesleh Donaldson as Bernadette O'Hara
Lisa Langlois as Amelia
Happy Birthday to Me was produced by John Dunning and André Link, as a Cinépix production. Dunning and Link would team up again on another Canadian slasher, My Bloody Valentine (1981), which went into production within a week of Happy Birthday to Me wrapping; however, My Bloody Valentine was actually released first, rushed to meet a 11 February 1981 release date in time for Valentine's Day. Keen to get their classier, bigger-budgeted Happy Birthday to Me released, Dunning and Link quickly realized that gimmicks were being used up by other slasher movies in the wake of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). 1980 alone saw the release of Friday the 13th, as well as two New Year's Eve-themed horror movies, Terror Train (1980) and New Year’s Evil (1980), as well as Christmas-themed films To All a Goodnight (1980) and Christmas Evil (1980), the wedding-themed He Knows You’re Alone (1980), Prom Night (1980), and Mother’s Day (1980) (followed by Graduation Day and the Thanksgiving-based Home Sweet Home the following year). Because everyone has a birthday, Dunning and Link believed that Happy Birthday to Me could have universal appeal. They hired John Saxton, a University of Toronto English professor, to develop the story. The subplot involving Virginia’s brain injury came from Dunning reading an article where they were regenerating frogs with electricity; he figured this could form the basis for a murder mystery where a girl suffers flashbacks and blackouts yet is unsure of her role in the mayhem around her.
Although it seems to have been directly influenced by the success of Friday the 13th and Prom Night, it is worth noting that pre-production on Happy Birthday to Me had started before those films had been released, which more than hints that the huge success of Halloween was perhaps more of an influence (although the Grand Guignol elements of Friday the 13th may have convinced the makers of Happy Birthday to Me to add more gore as production geared up).
The specialized genre website Retro Slashers has a copy of the script purporting to be a third draft from April 1980, where the major difference is that Virginia is actually the killer, possessed by the spirit of her deceased mother. Although this ending logistically makes more sense than the ending that was filmed, the filmmakers thought that what was originally scripted was not climactic enough. Still, the majority of the film does point to this original ending, which indicates the switch came well into production. This version of the script also features a good number of scenes that were either never shot or rewritten, including some that show more clearly Alfred's love for Virginia and Virginia's difficult relationship with her father.
The script was completely reworked by screenwriting team Timothy Bond and Peter Jobin before production started.
Happy Birthday to Me began production in early July 1980. At the helm was the British director J. Lee Thompson, famous for the classic Cape Fear (1962). Thompson had also been a dialogue coach to Alfred Hitchcock years before. Thompson had actively been looking to direct a thriller, so he jumped at the chance to work on Happy Birthday to Me. In the press pack he stated, "What attracted me to this script was that the young people stood out as vivid, individual characters. The difference between a good chiller and exploitative junk, at least in my opinion, is whether or not you care about the victims." Jack Blum, who played Alfred in the film, said that Thompson took the film seriously. Thompson would later direct the Charles Bronson slasher 10 to Midnight (1983), which featured more exploitative material than Happy Birthday to Me.
Hollywood actor Glenn Ford, who played Jonathan Kent in Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), was less-than-thrilled to be in a slasher film. Apparently Ford was unpleasant on set, reportedly throwing tantrums...and even punches. His caliber of actor brought a bit of Hollywood glamor to the film, a rare thing for most slashers, which kept costs to a minimum with largely unknown actors. Only The Fan (1981), which starred Lauren Bacall and James Garner, and Alone in the Dark (1982), with Donald Pleasence and Jack Palance, could compare as old-Hollywood stars in a slasher film.
The film's make-up effects were done by special effects guru Tom Burman (who replaced Stéphan Dupuis just three weeks before the cameras were due to start rolling). Dupuis later did the duties on another bigger budget Canadian slasher, Visiting Hours (1982), but left the production for undisclosed reasons. Ironically, in an issue of Fangoria from 1981, Burman criticizes the level of gore in films at that time.
Happy Birthday to Me finished filming in September 1980 (five months after the release of Friday the 13th). Much of it was shot in and around Loyola College in Montreal. The drawbridge scenes were actually filmed in Phoenix, New York, just outside Syracuse. The producers found it difficult to find the right bridge closer to the main production, as the expansion of the Highway system had made them increasingly rare. The whole town of Phoenix came to watch the dangerous stunts, where a total of fifteen cars were junked, and one stunt driver was hospitalized with two broken ankles. The bridge itself has since been removed and replaced by a bridge further to the north. The removal takes with it a piece of history in drawbridges.
The film’s ending was changed to hide the fact that the script was being rewritten so late in production.
Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin provided the film's score. Syreeta, one-time wife of Stevie Wonder, provided the eerie closing track that plays over the credits.
Columbia Pictures bought the $2.5 million production for $3.5 million, following Paramount Pictures' lead with buying Friday the 13th the year before. Columbia reportedly put as much money into promoting the film as it cost to make.
The promotional materials sold the oddball nature of the murders as the prime reason to see it, with the poster advertising "Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see." Whilst the death scenes are not overly gory (arguably because of censorship troubles), they are sensationalist without being mean-spirited.
Dunning and Link didn't like the advertising campaign that Columbia Pictures had planned; they thought it should have been more subtle and worried that it might put off as many people as it attracted. They were concerned that only a handful of the murders in the film were truly bizarre and that the audience might feel cheated.
Columbia Pictures really pushed the promotional manual for Happy Birthday to Me, which was jam-packed with ideas for cinemas to promote the film. Although it is not clear how many picture houses really embraced the film's promotion, some of the more colorful ideas were to stage a mini-recreation of the film's final scene (without the bodies), but with a butchered birthday cake with crimson candles surrounded by glittering birthday party hats, all to be set upon a fake coffin. People celebrating their own birthdays were encouraged to bring family and friends with incentives, such as T-shirts and party hats. They also suggested having a member of staff, dressed in funereal black, preventing anyone from entering the auditorium during the final ten minutes. Those in line would then be offered "a bite-sized slice of Virginia's birthday cake” from the concession stand.
The promotion manual also had lots of ideas for radio disc jockeys to promote the film, including a special 'scream in'. Callers would be asked questions such as, "'How would you react if you went to a birthday party … and you were the only person at the dinner table who was still alive?" Those with the best set of lungs would win free passes to the film. The manual also encouraged the DJ's to attend dressed as funeral attendants and give each girl a white lily and each boy a blood-red carnation.
The film was also advertised with trailers both at the cinema and on TV. Most trailers culminate with a birthday cake being split with an axe, although an axe does not actually feature in the film itself.
My Bloody Valentine had been severely cut due to the MPAA's backlash against violent movies, in the light of criticism they received from the media, critics and pressure groups, which only increased after the murder of John Lennon in Manhattan on 8 December 1980. Strangely, Happy Birthday to Me was one of the few horror pictures of the time to be released without any censorship from the MPAA. Adam Rockoff's 2004 documentary Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film states that the film was released "virtually uncut" because of Thompson's stature with the MPAA. In the United Kingdom, the BBFC passed the film without any cuts on 30 April 1981.
Happy Birthday to Me made $10 million at the North American box office.
Vincent Canby in the New York Times called it a confused ripoff of Friday the 13th and Prom Night. James Harwood in Variety wrote that the film gets "dumber and dumber until the fitful finale".
AllMovie gave the film a mixed review, writing, "Happy Birthday to Me stands out from the slasher movie pack of the early '80s because it pushes all the genre's elements to absurd heights. The murders, plot twists and, especially, the last-minute revelations that are dished up in the final reel don't just deny credibility, they outright defy it."
The initial DVD release from Columbia Pictures featured a new soundtrack for the film and a new, completely different cover art (not original poster art) which fans did not appreciate. This also caused many slasher fans to beg for a re-release of the film with the original soundtrack that was heard in theatres and on the Columbia VHS.
Anchor Bay Entertainment released a new DVD with the image from the original poster artwork as the DVD cover and using the film's original soundtrack. The DVD was released on 13 October 2009.
In 2012, the film was released on Blu-Ray through Mill Creek Entertainment on a double-feature disc with the original When a Stranger Calls. This release, like the 2009 DVD, features the original 1981 audio.
The 1986 UK RCA/Columbia VHS release featured the original print with the original score. The 2004 Sony Pictures Home Entertainment DVD (with the "birthday girl" cover) uses a print with library music tracks and some differences in sound editing (possibly a temp soundtrack from the original production), though the closing Syreeta song is intact. The 2009 Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment DVD (with the "shish kebab guy" cover) has the theatrical soundtrack, as does the Blu-ray from Mill Creek.
The film's score varies from copy to copy. Some video releases contain the original theatrical score, whereas others contain a newer, completely different score and ending theme. The original score was written and composed by Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin, respectively.
The film's ending theme "Happy Birthday To Me" was sung by Syreeta Wright (credited as simply Syreeta in the ending credits) and written by Lance Rubin (music) and Molly-Ann Leikin (lyrics). Subsequent releases (primarily the recent DVD copies) feature a disco track in place of this theme.
There was no official soundtrack release; however, fan-made copies exist over the Internet.Director J. Lee Thompson was renowned for tossing buckets of blood about on the set of Happy Birthday to Me to up the gore factor. According to producer John Dunning, with the assistance of special effects man Tom Burman, Thompson "would be splashing blood ALL over the place."
UK cinema and 1986 RCA/Columbia video releases featured the original music score. The 2004 DVD release is the R-rated version with the alternate music.
The press reported that to keep the "twist" ending a secret, several endings were shot. This is untrue but helped hide the fact that while shooting, the film had no ending. The script was written with one ending that made sense to the story, but did not have a twist. So producers proceeded to film while tinkering with a twist. This explains why there is no build-up.
The movie was not popular with most critics; film historian Leonard Maltin considered it a bomb, stating that "Glenn Ford must have been desperate for the work" and said that Ford had "hit rock bottom with this appearance."
Lisa Langlois auditioned for the role of Ann, but the role went to Tracy Bregman instead.
According to an interview with Lisa Langlois, her character Amelia was originally killed off. In the first cut of the film, her character got an axe to her head. Langlois was told by David Douglas (a cameraman on the set) that the film would have been rated-X if they kept that scene intact. So instead, the producers decided to make her look like the sole survivor in the final release.