A film review by Craig J. Koban October 24, 2017


2017, PG-13, 93 mins.


Jessica Rothe as Tree Gelbman  /  Israel Broussard as Carter Davis  /  Ruby Modine as Lori  /  Rachel Black as Danielle  /  Charles Aitken as Gregory  /  Jason Bayle as David

Directed by Christopher B. Landon  /  Written by Scott Lobdell




I have this nagging feeling that I've seen a film like HAPPY DEATH DAY before. 

Not only that, but I have this nagging feeling that I've seen a film like HAPPY DEATH DAY before. 

Sarcasm aside, HAPPY DEATH is a new horror comedy that utilizes a very familiar premise, especially for anyone that's ever seen GROUNDHOG DAY, EDGE OF TOMORROW, or even this year's BEFORE I FALL: A strange and unexplained time loop that forces a main character to re-live the same day over and over...and over again.  Obviously, this once inspired concept was introduced in the classic aforementioned 1993 Bill Murray starring classic and has indeed been appropriated (a euphemism for copying) in various films since. 

HAPPY DEATH DAY does most certainly involve a deeply confused and lost soul that's forced against her will to re-live the same hellish day multiple times over, but this film adds a slasher genre twist to the proceedings and, in many respects, serves as a fairly sly meta commentary on how the genre seems to regurgitate the same formulas of serial monsters killing faceless teenagers over and over...and over again.  Now, no one in their right mind would give HAPPY DEATH DAY points for daring originality, but it's nevertheless more darkly amusing, slyly written, and better acted than it has any right of being.  That, and it has a level of self deprecating fun with its absurdity that helps override its derivativeness.   



College sorority sister Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is not your typical horror film heroine.  She's self absorbed, materialistic, deeply unsympathetic to others around her, and lives in a tightly wound bubble of catering to her own egotistical needs.  As the film opens she finds herself awakening with the mother of all hangovers at the dorm room of dweeby nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard).  Predictably, she's shocked by how she ended up in the bed of this nerd (especially seeing as she has no memory as to whether or not she slept with him).  She abruptly leaves before Carter can properly introduce himself, and as she parades around campus running late for class she manages to alienate herself from multiple people all at once, in particular her father, whom just wants to wish her a happy birthday.  All in all, Tree couldn't care less for anyone or anything around her. 

Later that night she decides to attend a massive party, but along the way she finds herself walking through a very dark, dreary, and seemingly uninhabited part of campus, during which time she's confronted by a creepy and sinister figure wearing a chubby baby face mask.  She immediately assumes it's a sorority sister prank, but then when the mysterious person begins chasing her with a knife in hand she realizes that her life is in danger.  Tragically, she's accosted and murdered by this assailant...but she finds herself waking up suddenly afterwards...in the same dorm room bed of Carter's having the same suspiciously similar conversation she had with him at the start of the day.  Feeling overwhelming deja vu, Tree embarks on her day that once again culminates at a party later that evening...but she's once again attacked and killed by the same apparent masked maniac...and she wakes up once again in Carter's bed and once again repeats the same conversation she's had with him twice before.   

Obviously, anyone that has seen GROUNDHOG DAY will be able to deduce where HAPPY DEATH DAY is going from here in terms of the wash, rinse, and repeat narrative cycle.  The film's first two thirds are preposterously entertaining in showing the increasingly agitated Tree trying to make some semblance of sense as to what in the hell is happening to her.  One manner that HAPPY DEATH DAY segregates itself apart from the other pack of GROUNDHOG DAY wannabes is in how it slowly becomes a fairly involving murder mystery yarn wrapped within its MEAN GIRLS meets GROUNDHOG DAY meets SCREAM tonal marriage.  The more Tree begins to realize that she's trapped in a horrendously frustrating time loop that always ends with her murder and re-awakening, the more she desperately attempts to thwart her demise.  Unfortunately, no matter what meticulous steps she takes twisted fate jumps in and that damned masked murderer shows up to slay her.  After dying and re-spawning multiple times she takes it upon herself to play detective and deduce the identity of the killer, which she believes is someone close to her.  Is it the college professor she's having an adulterous affair with?  An angry sorority sister that feels dejected by her lack of friendship?  A local jock that she had one date with that's mad with her unwillingness to respond to his texts? 

Director Christopher Landon (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES and A SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE) keeps the film moving briskly and imbues it with some clever touches as well (the manner, for instance, that the Universal logo that precedes the film starts, stops, rewinds, and then repeats the cycle sets the right cheeky tone for the whole enterprise).  He also does a commendable job of juggling the film's multiple genres and tones with a reasonable smoothness, blending horror, comedy, and stinging college satire.  The screenplay by Scott Lobdell is also a bit more ambitious than I was frankly expecting going in and laces the main character with more depth and nuance than what others in slasher films are afforded.  Initially, Tree is a toxically condescending she-devil that eventually displays an emotional unthawing and later wounded defenselessness that makes you want to root for her getting out of her nightmarish predicament.  Her infectious snarkiness remains throughout, which helps give HAPPY DEATH DAY such a spunky and vigorous forward momentum. 

It could be said that this film would have been a monotonous bore, though, without the headstrong presence of Jessica Rothe quarterbacking the whole story.  She's in literally every single scene of HAPPY DEATH DAY and is up to the obligatory genre challenge of playing a stereotypical scream queen.  Yet, there's deceptively more cagey nuance with her performance than simply the physicality of running aware from knife wielding sociopaths.  Her character is forced to run an emotional gambit as well throughout her repeated time looped days and, in turn, the film places more overt demands on Rothe as a direct result.  Tree's also a fragile person that harbors painful family memories that help to explain how she projects that angst onto others around her.  Thankfully, Rothe plays things relatively straight throughout and never obtrusively tips off to the audience that she's trapped in an ape shit crazy movie, which is laudable. 

HAPPY DEATH DAY, to be fair, runs out of creative gas by about the 60-70 minute mark, which is somewhat forgivable based on the fact that it's a mercifully trim and lean 93 minute long.  It probably doesn't deliver in the consistent scare department either, which may or may not have something to do with it being somewhat marginalized by a neutered PG-13 rating.  The unavoidable identity reveal of the killer - after a long series of false reveals and red herrings - doesn't entirely make sense, nor does it feel like it earns its way towards a successful sense of narrative closure.  I almost feel like I shouldn't recommend HAPPY DEATH DAY, but it uses its GROUNDHOG DAY template modestly well with some clever alterations and, most importantly, Rothe is a movie star in the making that single handedly makes this whole ludicrous film work.  HAPPY DEATH DAY is unpretentious fun that's not trying to sell itself as anything it's not, plus it acknowledges its plagiaristic elements by even directly name-checking Bill Murray and GROUNDHOG DAY during its conclusion.  The makers here are in on the joke as opposed to incredulously turning a blind eye to it, and it's that self-aware edge that ultimately makes HAPPY DEATH DAY playfully watchable.   

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