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