Director: Christopher Landon
Writer: Scott Lobdell
Release Date: 13 October, 2017
Its Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls meets Scream. Imagine if Lindsay Lohan stabbed Regina George in the face every day for a whole movie and you’ve got a pretty decent idea of the vibe Happy Death Day is going for.
That does sound appealing.
Right? And believe it or not, regardless of how played-out the time-loop plot device might be, however dull and formulaic slasher movies have been for years, Happy Death Day is legitimately appealing. It’s a fun, snappy horror-comedy with a twist of oddly-credible romance that jumbles up a bunch of tired concepts into a surprisingly novel composition. It was undoubtedly pitched to a studio purely as the illegitimate offspring of the above-mentioned genre classics, and it was undoubtedly picked up because it was easy to make and easier to sell, but I’m thoroughly pleased that it exists despite all that. And it has none of the lazy cynicism you’d expect from such a nakedly marketable idea.
Mostly thanks to Jessica Rothe, who delivers a lively, sincere and very funny lead character. Her name is Tree, for some reason, and she’s a sorority sister who’s casually contemptuous of everyone. She wakes up on the morning of her birthday after a supposed one night stand (“I’m in a dorm?”), and spends the rest of the day pissing off almost everyone she encounters. The dorm belongs to Carter (Israel Broussard), a sweetheart who she instantly derides. There’s a faintly desperate guy (Caleb Spillyards) whom she enthusiastically spurns. She ignores her roommate (Ruby Modine), repeatedly hooks up with the boyfriend of the sorority’s alpha-female (Rachel Matthews), and sleeps with her married professor (Charles Aitken) in order to breeze through his class. Everyone in the film has a good reason to kill her, and that’s not even including the professor’s wife, who catches them in a locked office, and a local nutjob (Rob Mello) who’s in police custody – but for how long?
She sounds awful.
She is – and that’s entirely the point. With such a litany of suspects and a thoroughly unlikeable main character, we have all the ingredients we need for a whodunit that gets all its momentum from the repeated stabbing, strangling and blowing-up of its main character. What humanises Tree is how she’s forced to revaluate how she treats people and why; an admittedly trite theme that nonetheless fits neatly into a film that is intentionally no big deal. And, if we’re being frank, compared to most slashers the idea of a character realising she’s kind of a bitch is practically Nietzsche.
So every time she’s killed, she starts the day again?
Yup, straight back to Carter’s dorm room. It’s the typical conceit – everything has been reset, and she’s the only person who knows it. Aside from the usual self-reflective process of making oneself a better person, Tree’s constant revisiting of the same day is designed to allow her to gradually piece together clues that reveal the killer’s motives and identity. Again, nothing original here. But this is a format extremely well-suited to a slasher movie; we have a valid reason to re-use sets and scenarios, which is a money-saver, but we also get to see the kind of character who would ordinarily end up getting killed first without any ceremony develop into a fully-fledged, three-dimensional person who we eventually come to really root for.
Is there anything worthwhile beyond the basic premise, though?
The killer wears an instantly-iconic cartoon baby mask, so there’s that. But no, not really. It’s clear that the film’s intention is to be the best version possible of this very specific thing, and that’s really all it ends up being. There’s a fun wrinkle which has Tree wake up every day with permanent injuries caused by the previous death, but this isn’t expanded on and never really goes anywhere. That’s annoying, but it’s far from a deal breaker as the film would function perfectly well without it.
So, what doesn’t work?
Happy Death Day does enough with its premise to feel as though it hasn’t wasted it, but it mainly opts for slight variations on the same characters and scenarios, and there’s a sense every now and again that it’s about to go a little bit further into true screwball territory and never really gets there. It’s at its best when flurries of previously-seen images are bombarding the audience from new angles, and it would have been even better had those angles been slightly more novel. That’s an issue with Tree’s various deaths, too, which are unoriginal and not especially scary, but luckily the film has most of them occur off-screen in a way that suggests the actual method of Tree’s death is less important than how she’s going to use whatever information she managed to glean when she wakes up.
See it. Fittingly, Happy Death Day is a slasher flick worth experiencing more than once.
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