REPEAT DEFEND HER
HAPPY DEATH DAY (15)
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenplay: Scott Lobdell
Review: David Stephens
Often the best horror movies can be distilled down to one sentence and still attract the attention of a prospective audience. Films like; Supernatural psycho slaughters teenagers in their dreams with finger-knives (“Elm Street”), shape-shifting clown murders kids and feeds on their fears (“IT”), or lame serial-killer wastes a brilliant cast and only films 85% of the script (Not you “The Snowman”! Go home!). “Happy Death Day” is a perfect example of this. “Groundhog Day” meets “Scream”. There you go; you’re sold already aren’t you. Originally known as “Half to Death”, HDD is another successful example of Blumhouse taking a low-budget concept and running with it. The US release has already earned it 10x the budget for its production after the first week. The movie is directed by Christopher B. Landon, who also wrote and directed “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” (one of the better entries in our humble opinion) as well as “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”. The story was written by Scott Lobdell, who is better known for his work on the “X-Men” comics and movies. The lead character is played by Jessica Rothe, who was recently in “La La Land”. Just a week later than the US release, it’s now in UK cinemas, so YGROY takes a look… so YGROY takes a look… so YGROY takes a look… and you get the idea with that.
Theresa "Tree" Gelbman (Rothe) wakes up in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar college dorm. Nursing a hangover, she can remember little about her drunken binge the previous night, and offhandedly dismisses the guy who’s in the room (Israel Broussard as Carter Davis), as she’s not sure whether she slept with him or not. Staggering to her own sorority house, she tries to ignore the fact that it’s her birthday as it holds some bad associations, even though her roommate (Ruby Modine as Lori Spengler) gives her a present. She gets through the rest of the day, stumbling through the usual college shenanigans and an illicit meeting with her married lover/tutor (Charles Aitken as Gregory Butler). But as she takes a shortcut through a subway to a party, she’s stalked and stabbed to death by a hooded killer wearing a baby-face mascot mask. The End. Except it isn’t… Tree wakes again in the same bed at the same time, and the same things happen to her over again. She puts it down to drunken Deja-vu or something, but she’s killed again by the same psycho, albeit in different circumstances. Now Tree realises that she’s stuck in a time-loop of some kind, and it doesn’t look like she can break out of it until she discovers the identity of her multiple murderer…
Yep, it’s a PG-13 horror and lovers of gore-fests won’t find much of the red-stuff here. But … goddamn it’s a fun ride! Unlike other disappointing PG-rated genre offerings (and “Wish Upon”, we’re looking at you), this totally embraces its concept and does plenty of clever and entertaining stuff with it. There are still loads of demises though (some surprisingly cruel ones as well), and even some very effective stalking scenes from the resident psycho, with some vicious takedowns. The film knows its horror tropes and how to use them. This is accentuated by a predictably lively score from Bear “The Walking Dead” McCreary. Baby-Face (or whatever you want to call the killer) is a creepy enough antagonist, with a design from Tony Gardner, the same guy who the built the "Ghostface" mask from every “Scream” film by the way. In a delicious nod to “Friday the 13th” and its “ki-ki-ma-ma” motif, there’s a subliminal baby’s wail on the score whenever the masked killer appears. There’s even homage to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”.
As expected, the plot plays out in pure “Groundhog Day” style, and the film even name-checks the movie in a hilarious moment. As Tree walks out onto college grounds, there are plenty of “Ned Ryerson” moments – little incidents that become recognisable and are later manipulated or anticipated by her. Sure, it’s a kind of plagiarism, but it’s the best kind because it does something fun and unusual with it. As she embraces her situation there’s a brilliant mid-way sequence where Tree adopts various methods to investigate those on her suspect list, whilst still managing to fall prey to the killer in unexpected ways. There are a couple of little twists on the time-loop “lore” as well, which means the repeated kills never lose their impact. Like the underrated “Edge of Tomorrow”, it’s always Tree’s death that resets the day, it doesn’t just happen automatically and it may not be infinite.
To be honest though, it wouldn’t have been quite so entertaining if it wasn’t for Rothe at the centre of it all. Basically she’s playing a “final girl” for the entirety of the film, and she has to carry the whole story. Luckily for the plot, she’s absolutely brilliant! By turns vulnerable and bad-ass, she’s perfect for the role. Going from victim to master-of-her-destiny, she’s not exactly a role model to start with. But just like “Groundhog Day” the time-loop shapes her into a better person, with one particular sacrificial moment defining her transition. Even in “Mean Girls”-mode though, she makes Tree a likeable character and one to root for, with that easy-going charm and inherent toughness that all great final girls have. Just watch her reaction on getting arrested or when she has a junk-food driven burp & fart fest. Brilliant.
Oddly for a film about constant death, it’s actually pretty sweet-natured and has a life-affirming quality. The relationship between Carter and Tree is reminiscent of that between Bill and Rita in “Edge of Tomorrow”, as he’s the only one who ever believes in her repeated situation, even though he doesn’t experience it himself. There’s also a playful and witty script that provides plenty of appropriate snarky humour. “Would you stop looking at me like I just took a dump on your mom's head?” or “Who takes their date to Subway? Besides, it's not like you have a foot-long” being some of many.
If you want to reach for any criticism, the resolution of the killer’s identity feels a bit of a cheat, although the film does wink at you and pulls another card from its sleeve. The genre element does kind of disappear for a large chunk of the film at one point. And it never really tries to be anything more than a feel-good horror romp either, with a heavy teen vibe from the old 80’s slasher films. But is that a negative thing?
In summary, we loved this and we’re probably going to over-mark it a bit. It’s not going to be a classic for the ages, but it’s good uncomplicated entertainment. Some hardcore genre fans may not want to warm to it, but after several big-screen disappointments recently, this Blumhouse meta-slasher is an absolute joy. Go for the premise, stay for Rothe’s adorable performance, and then go again. Oh, and there’s a great final line of dialogue as well.