Melissa Sue Anderson of Little House on the Prairie was one of the most popular television actresses at the time she starred in Happy Birthday To Me.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson (1962's Cape Fear) and produced by John Dunning and André Link (My Bloody Valentine), this Canadian horror has a different take on the "holiday" theme so prevalent during this period - but with a significantly more complicated plot.
Filmed in July 1980 and released to theaters in May 1981, Birthday boasts effective splat work by special effects master Tom Burman (including a skewered head, a nasty death-by-weightlifting and the infamous shishkebab throating).
Co-starring as Anderson's psychiatrist is screen vet Glenn Ford (1946's classic Gilda as well as 1953's stellar The Big Heat et al).
The Crawford Academy is a prestigious high school attended by a group of inner circle students known as the "Top Ten." One evening, Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson), is on her way to meet the others at a local pub called The Silent Woman.
She gets into her car and suddenly a figure wearing black gloves reaches over from the back seat and begins to strangle her. Bernadette struggles...and thinking quickly...she plays dead.
The killer pauses and Bernadette manages to escape. Running through the parking lot, she sees a familiar face and asks for help. But that person pulls out a blade and slashes her throat.
At the pub, Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) and her friends are behaving raucously. They're kicked out and dash to their cars - where they challenge each other to a game of "chicken." This particular dare involves jumping over a raised drawbridge.
Virginia flips out and storms out of the car. On her way home, she stops by her mother's grave.
When she arrives home, her father Hal (Lawrence Dane) expresses his dissatisfaction with her visit to the cemetery. He tells her she shouldn't go there because it will bring back memories of what happened.
Meanwhile, another student and admirer of Virginia, Etienne (Michel Rene LaBelle), has followed her home. She sees him looking at her through a window and screams, scaring him off.
The next day at school, Virginia (or Ginny as she's called) is in biology class watching a frog dissection. She has a flashback to a surgery she underwent - which occurred after the accident that killed her mother.
The operation involved brain cell regeneration. She informs Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) about the flackback and he tells her she is regaining her memory. Outside the school, Etienne approaches Ginny and shows her a pair of underwear he stole from her bedroom. She walks off in disgust.
While fixing his motorcycle, Etienne is approached by a black-gloved stranger...who puts the scarf that Etienne is wearing into the running motor and strangles him.
At the pub again, the group is talking about Alfred (Jack Blum) - the oddball member of the circle who goes around with his pet mouse. Ginny and Ann (Tracy Bregman) decide to sneak into Alfred's house. They find what at first appears to be Bernadette's head...but is in fact a replica that Alfred made.
The body count is getting higher. Greg (Richard Rebiere) is killed while working out.
It was obvious that Greg knew who the killer was before he died...since the murderer kept adding more weights to Greg's barbell...finally dropping an enormous weight on Greg's crotch, which caused him to drop the barbell on his neck.
Rudi (David Eisner), another member of the Ten, decides to take Ginny to the academy chapel. Up in the bell tower, he plays around by pulling out a knife and threatening her. A priest who enters the chapel below finds blood.
She has another flashback to her operation and recalls the surgeons making the incision in her skull to perform the brain operation.
Rudi turns up at school - after having played a practical joke on everyone by disappearing and burying a fake skull outside.
While following Ginny, Alfred is stabbed. The person holding the knife turns out to be Ginny.
Ginny's birthday is this coming weekend. Her father is going away on work related business but promises to return for her party.
At the school dance, Ginny is acting in an aggressive manner. She asks Steve (Matt Craven) over to her house for a midnight snack. He takes her up on the offer and they go back to her place where she cooks shishkebob in the fireplace.
As she's feeding him, she suddenly thrusts the skewer into his mouth. Poor Steve gags to death.
The next morning, Ann comes by to find out what happened with Steve. Ginny says she doesn't remember being with him. In the bathroom, she goes into a trance remembering the accident again.
She thinks back to being in the car with her mother and crashing into the river.
Ginny goes over to the bathtub...where she finds Ann submerged in the water with her neck slit. When Dr. Faraday arrives at the house, Ginny tells him that she murdered Ann. But the body has disappeared. The doctor implores her to make the connection between her accident and the deaths of the six students.
Ginny recalls what happened before her car went into the water. It was her birthday and her friends were invited to a celebration her mother had planned for her.
None of them showed up...preferring instead to go to another party. It turns out that her mom was not a respected person in the community. She had a reputation as a "loose" woman and many in the town believed she married Ginny's father simply for his money.
Furious, her mother dragged Ginny to the other party but was denied entry. It was a humiliating experience that ended with her drinking and driving the car into the water.
After Ginny tells this story, she leaves the room. She returns and bludgeons the doctor. It's now after midnight and her father does make it in time for her birthday.
He finds a bloody mess instead. He goes out towards his wife's grave and discovers that the body has been exhumed. Nearby is the house where his wife lived before she married him. When he gets there, he sees a gruesome sight.
The bodies of the murdered students and his wife are slumped in chairs around the dining room table. Ginny carries in a cake...and singing "Happy Birthday" to herself.
Ginny's father is overcome with grief and becomes yet another victim for the maniacal young murderess. We then see...the real Ginny, who is under sedation.
As the two girls begin to struggle, the drugged Ginny rips off the mask of the murdering Ginny. The murderer has actually been Ann the entire time! Years before, Ginny's mother had an affair with a married man...Ann's father.
Virginia was born out of that affair. Ann reveals all this in the climactic ending, claiming that Virginia's illegitimate birth caused the demise of her family. In actuality, the two are half-sisters. Ann had murdered everyone in retaliation.
Using Ginny's weakened mental state, Ann had carefully placed all the blame on the poor birthday girl. In the chaos, Ann & Ginny struggle...ending with Ginny stabbing Ann to save herself.
A policeman enters the abandoned house and sees the carnage, the birthday cake...and Ginny standing there with a bloody knife...
Poor Mary Ingalls! In addition to the lovely translucent-eyed Melissa Sue Anderson, Happy Birthday To Me is notable for its creative murders and the fairly strong production values. In addiction, the characters are likable enough.
The overwrought climactic birthday scene alone is worth the price of admission. It's filled with so many twists, it seems to be a more grisly version of a Scooby Doo episode. But it all makes sense...if you pay close attention.