New Review: Happy Death Day (2017)
Director: Christopher Landon
Cast: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Jason Bayle, Charles Aitken, Tran Tran, Phi Vu, Caleb Spillyards, Blaine Kern III
I love the title Happy Death Day. It harkens back to the cheesy 80s horror shows with titles like Chopping Mall and The Mutilator. Said movies never aspired to great art, and some (like Chopping Mall) were smart enough not to take themselves seriously. Happy Death Day is an affectionate nod to the 80s horror films of yore (there’s even a poster of They Live in someone’s dorm room), and while it’s certainly never scary, it’s very entertaining, thanks in large part to the performance turned in by Jessica Rothe.
Rothe plays Tree Gilbman, a stunningly nasty Bayfield University sorority sister who, in the film’s opening scene, wakes up in nice guy Carter’s (Israel Broussard) dorm room. She gets dressed, storms out, and as we follow her while she goes about her day, we almost long for the scene where the knife-wielding killer shows up. She is impossibly cruel to her fellow school mates, is having an affair with her married professor, and constantly ignores her father’s phone calls (their relationship has been on the rocks since her mother died three years ago). Some horror movies deliberately write up characters so unlikable that you feel sort of relieved to see them killed off. In any other horror show, Tree would be one of those characters.
In other words, she is the perfect leading character for this particular story. Eventually, a knife-wielding killer does show up wearing a baby mask (the school’s mascot is, apparently, a giant baby), but the twist (assuming you haven’t seen the trailer) is that every time she dies, she relives the day all over again. It’s basically Groundhog Day meets Scream. Had this scenario played out toward a girl who’s actually sweet and likable, that might have made the “reliving her own murder” scenario a little cruel and mean-spirited. Tree is the sort of character who could try and better herself, and what better way to do that than to have someone kill you over and over in some unexplained time loop?
Of course, every film that has rehashed the Groundhog Day scenario has had it happen to characters who were selfish and unlikable at first, but then become better people in the end. Because Happy Death Day is the third movie in the past three years to use this premise (the others being Edge of Tomorrow and Before I Fall), there is a fear of this premise growing tiresome. While this movie follows a predictable pattern, Rothe makes it work. She is such a charming and vibrant actress that, as familiar as the scenario now is, she keeps you invested, and even wins your sympathy as the film wears on.
She’s also funny as heck, creating some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments along the way, like her encounter with a highway patrolman. And as violent as the proceedings tend to get, there is real warmth and chemistry between her and Broussard. The scene where he assures her that he never took advantage of her in the dorm in a way that gets her to stifle a smile made me smile as well, and this comes shortly after we see her get butchered in her bedroom.
There is some fun in watching her go through a list of suspects as she keeps living the day over and over, especially when she learns a few things about her friends that she didn’t know before (like how one of them is gay). Screenwriter Scott Lobdell also ups the stakes by having each death take a physical toll on her every time she wakes up. Tree admits that feels weaker at the start of every day, so how long will it be before these numerous deaths finally ends her for good?
I mentioned before that the movie is never scary. It’s not, but there are moments that are pretty suspenseful. Tree’s first encounter with the killer (which involves her finding a music box in an isolated tunnel) is pretty tense, as is the scene where she has to escape from a hospital and makes it all the way to the parking garage. Tree’s final encounter with the killer is, however, pretty dopey. When the killer finally reveals the why, the revelation is so lame that even Tree is stunned by how stupid it is.
In spite of its predictability and silly pay off, Happy Death Day is a surprising fun movie. It’s engaging, and funny, and most surprisingly of all, heart-felt. When Tree finally meets her father during a birthday get together, her monologue is so well-acted and written that I was surprised by how touched I was by it. That’s not something you would expect from a movie with a title as wonderfully cheesy as Happy Death Day.
Rated PG-13 for violence, some strong language, sexual content, drug material, brief nudity
Final Rating: *** (out of ****)