Happy Death Day (2017)
Get Up. Live Your Day. Get Killed. Again.
A fun, campy, likable teen thriller, Happy Death Day mixes Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) with the time loop formula, the Jason Blum-produced horror best described as Groundhog Day (1993) with a murderous twist! Heck, I can almost envision the studio pitch, the higher-ups namedropping similar cosmic resurrection flicks, you know, films where an unlikable protagonist learns how to become a better person via repeating a series of events, think Edge of Tomorrow (2014) or the YA gem Before I Fall (2017). Directed by Christopher Landon, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), Happy Death Day doesn’t reinvent the aforementioned idea, this gore-free collage slasher basically ‘repeating’ what its well-received ancestors did in the past. Aimed squarely at the sleepover crowd, Happy Death Day still succeeds thanks to a number of key factors.
The most important of these is little-known actress Jessica Rothe, La La Land (2017), who commands the screen as spoiled sorority gal Tree Gelbman, a promiscuous babe who, if following traditional slasher tropes from the ’80s and ’90s, would be bumped off somewhere in the first act! Delivering a star-making performance, this stunning 30-year-old effortlessly switches between self-assured, cattish, charming and vulnerable, all at the drop of a hat — yep folks, I have a new celebrity crush!
Anyhow, we meet Tree when she wakes up with the ringing of the campus clock tower at 9:00am, shocked and disgusted to discover that she’d spent the entire night in some random dude’s dorm room. That’s when she notices Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), a curly-haired nice guy whose name she can’t remember. Unsure whether they’d slept together, the hung-over Tree asks for some paracetamol before dashing out the door, ignoring Carter’s efforts to keep the conversation flowing. From there, Tree is thrust into a day she’ll soon become extremely familiar with.
It starts with her walk of shame, where Tree strolls across the quad and back to her sorority home, encountering a global-warming activist (Tenea Intriago), who tries to grab her signature, and Tim (Caleb Spillyards), a dopey jock who’d taken her on one lousy date and asks why she’d never replied to any of his texts. From there, Tree stumbles back into her sorority where she’s interrogated by the house queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews), before running into her disapproving roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who offers her a cupcake and reminds her that it’s her birthday — a day she greets with great disdain due to a painful memory. After that it’s off to her classes, followed by a steamy hook-up with her married professor Gregory (Charles Aitken). There’s also a meeting with her judgmental Kappa sisters, a short electric blackout, and then a surprise birthday bash. At some point during the night, however, Tree has a deadly encounter with a deranged killer, one who wears a black hoodie and a plastic school-mascot mask that resembles a smiling, fat-cheeked, one-toothed baby. Although Tree tries to fight the stranger off, she’s ultimately murdered and forced to re-start the day again.
And so, Tree must re-live her ‘death day’ over and over in the hopes of making it to tomorrow, our feisty leading lady finding new, inventive ways of changing the scenario or taking a different path so that she can stop the masked maniac from slaying her. Alas, the demented Big Boy-looking baddie always manages to show up, be it in her dorm, at a hospital or even on the side of the road, after she’d been pulled over by a police officer for speeding. Everything changes when Tree makes a startling discovery that promises some kind of end to her repetitive cycle (which may actually have an expiry date), the scream queen forced take charge of her destiny and figure a way out of her ghoulishly grim nightmare.
Working from a subversively silly script by Scott Lobdell, Man of the House (2005), complete with Heathers-type one-liners, Happy Death Day isn’t overly bloody nor is it interested in jump scares or the like, filmmakers clearly more concerned in dishing out laughs whilst playing up the repetition formula. You see, most of the enjoyment comes from seeing our sassy heroine become a video game-esque character, one who can reset the ‘level’ and try again thanks to a quasi-disposable number of lives. The apex is a wildly amusing montage set to Demi Lovato’s catchy pop track ‘Confident,’ which sees Tree attempt to identify her murderer after making a list of potential suspects. Moviemakers also have a blast crafting a number of creative death-to-life transitions as Tree is sent back to the start of her journey.
Given this, it’s a little frustrating to learn that the whole ‘time loop thing’ is never satisfactorily explained, while the perpetrator winds up being either the most obvious or least likely candidate, complete with an undercooked backstory/ motive. But hey, I guess this throwaway kind of breeziness is part of the overall appeal, Happy Death Day the perfect mid-movie choice for an all-night Halloween/ Friday the 13th marathon.
Although Jessica Rothe is the only cast member worth screaming about, her co-stars more than sell their clichéd ‘parts’ — i.e. bitchy mean girl, geeky nerd or adultering teacher. Israel Broussard, The Bling Ring (2013), is affable as Carter, the only person who Tree continually explains her surreal situation to, whilst newcomer Rachel Matthews aces the part of Danielle, the Greek house’s stereotypical president. To be honest, no one else really stands out bar the creepy knife-wheedling killer, who pops up in dimly lit rooms or tunnels ready to pounce, swaying ever so slightly in the background. Unknown Jason Bayle feels miscast as Tree’s father David, whose calls she constantly avoids, while Charles Aitken from television’s The Knick (2014) fails to leave any sort impression as cheating lecturer Gregory.
Featuring one too many endings (which feels kinda fitting), Happy Death Day should please those after a frothy turn-your-brain-off slasher, this one elevated by a stellar performance from lead Jessica Rothe, who’s bound to go places. In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to keep re-watching Happy Death Day over and over and over and over again.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie