HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on November 9, 2004, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


Who says DVD companies don’t listen to fan complaints? Advance reaction to Columbia TriStar’s tacky cover for the Happy Birthday to Me DVD was so hostile that the shrink wrap bears a sticker promising an insert card with the original poster design. Why the company didn’t just switch that art to the front isn’t clear, but hey, you can’t have everything—and in this case, that also applies to the movie’s score. As has been noted and virulently criticized elsewhere, Birthday on DVD contains different music that it did in theaters and on VHS, beginning with the substitution of an annoying disco tune for the original, much more evocative instrumental over the opening scene; only the end-title song remains recognizably intact.

Attempts on Fango’s part to get to the bottom of this situation were unsuccessful (Columbia TriStar didn’t get back to us about it), but it’s highly unlikely that the company went to the trouble of rescoring one of its catalog releases—even if they did commission new and subpar artwork for it. More likely, Happy Birthday, which was rescored by the studio prior to the theatrical release (as mentioned in our retrospective in issue #238—plug, plug), somehow wound up on the disc with its initial audio track; the music that’s there sounds very early-’80s. The same thing has apparently happened on Warner’s Return of the Living Dead Part II DVD, which presents the film with scoring that was replaced by J. Peter Robinson compositions prior to its big-screen debut.

In any case, the overall sound on the Happy Birthday disc is just decent, a mono mix with uneven clarity and occasional hiss. The visual quality is much better, with the 1.85:1 transfer sporting solid colors and rich blacks and an overall crisp picture. As for the movie itself—well, I’m afraid I’m not one of its greatest supporters. The “Six…bizarre murders” promised on that original poster provide their share of cheap thrills, but it’s obvious that the ending which unpersuasively explains them all was written well into the production. And given all of the movie’s convoluted exposition, that conclusion isn’t the only part that feels like it was made up as they went along.

More satisfying is another Canadian-lensed slasher opus from the period, Terror Train, issued on DVD recently by Fox with another altered cover image. Like Birthday, this is unfortunately a no-frills disc, but at least this one’s case preserves the original poster art, albeit as a smaller element, and the young woman depicted (Jamie Lee Curtis) is actually in the movie. It’s one of Curtis’ better horror outings outside the Halloween franchise, too, making atmospheric use of its unique (for the subgenre), confined setting and climaxing with one of the best twist endings in the slasher pantheon.

This Train was fortunate to have veteran cinematographer John Alcott on board, and the DVD largely does justice to his work. His effective use of light and shadow comes across well in the 1.85:1 transfer, which improves dramatically after a shaky, grainy start to boast strong hues and threatening blacks. (There’s also a fullscreen transfer, but you know not to go there.) Both the original mono and new 2.0 stereo tracks are provided, and the latter is a modest improvement over the former, if not terribly dense or varied. There’s also a Spanish-language track, worth noting in this context because it features—surprise—different music!

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