When a Stranger Calls occupies a permanent place of honor in the horror hall of fame for its
opening twenty minutes, which writer-director Fred Walton originally made as a short film and
then expanded into a feature after the success of John Carpenter's
Halloween. The simple device
of an isolated young woman receiving threatening phone calls from an unidentified voice has
such classic appeal that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson used it to kick off their genre parody
Scream nearly twenty years later. The famous question they asked of Drew Barrymore—"Do you
like scary movies?"—was the self-referential equivalent of Stranger's original, oft-repeated
query: "Have you checked the children?"
One's reaction to Happy Birthday to Me (hereafter, "HBtM") no doubt depends on what one
wants from a slasher film. If you're looking for elaborately staged executions of scantily clad and
misbehaving teens, the film will disappoint. The deaths are widely spaced, and the buckets of
blood that director J. Lee Thompson reportedly tossed around the set had to be toned down to
obtain an R rating. (Copies of the uncut version are rumored to exist for those willing to search
and pay the price.) If you crave a tautly edited, unrelenting turn of the suspenseful screws à la
John Carpenter's Halloween, HBtM can't deliver that either. It has way too much plot, and its
suspense rises and falls in waves as it gradually reveals its story in layers.
What HBtM has going for it—and why I consider it a minor classic—is a distinctively loopy
originality, a kind of determination, just one year after the original Friday the 13thand three
years after Halloween not to fall into the slasher formula that would generate so many routine
sequels for the next two decades and well into the next century. Instead, director Thompson tried
to make a slasher movie as if it were the kind of thriller with which he'd had such success when
he made the original Cape Fear nineteen years earlier.
Admittedly, a somewhat different skill set
was required, especially with the credibility-straining script penned by John Saxton (who wrote
the original story) and several other scribes, and the last-minute decision to change the ending
after most of principal photography had been completed. But Thompson, no matter how cheesy
some of his projects turned out to be, remained an old-fashioned storyteller. He always tried to
ensure that his characters had reasons for their actions, no matter how convoluted they might be.
Mill Creek has done a remarkably good job with these two minor classics of the slasher genre,
each of which, in its own way, kicks against the genre's limitations. For that reason alone, both
are worth owning, and in the case of Stranger for the additional reason that it has inspired many
of the filmmakers who came after it. Highly recommended, as long as you're not expecting
buckets of blood.