Review: Happy Death Day

Director: Christopher Landon

Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine

Another year, another slim collection of studio horrors timed to land around Halloween, and none of them ever seem to cut the mustard, right? I mean, fuck, Jigsaw looks terrible. We were all pining for a seventh (eighth? I lose track) run around the torture porn bases I’m sure. And it’s opposition is what? Another Blumhouse also ran? Forgive me for not getting my hopes up.

But wait. Because Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day – which arrives with no word-of-mouth hype and has barely registered with the UK press at all – might be just the tonic we need to get through another rain-washed and watered down October 31st. Granted, mega-hit IT is still in theatres raking in the money. But if you’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt, then this chirpy little fighter might just save your bacon.

The conceit is so simple that it can be summed up in as few words as “horror’s answer to Groundhog Day” (or Edge of Tomorrow, or that Star Trek where the Enterprise keeps exploding, or that X-Files with Mulder and Scully trapped in the bank). A college girl gets murdered on her birthday, but wakes up the same morning to face it all over again, over and over, until she can find and stop her killer. Already one would assume that Happy Death Day has an uphill struggle to contend with in terms of originality.

And while it isn’t about reinventing the wheel (or even explaining it’s appearance), Landon waves a loving flag for a style of horror that seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years; the teen horror comedy. It’s well aware of it’s hokey trope. Hell, it confronts it point-blank at the end of the picture. But Landon never sees this as a stumbling block, more an opportunity to play in the same lucrative sandbox as others before him. His film, and by extension Scott Lobdell’s script, isn’t quite as openly meta and arch as, say, an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it does display a similar tone and spirit to Joss Whedon’s child or the plucky teen horrors that popped up in the wake of Scream in the late 90’s. As a result, it plays more for character and situational comedy than it does for genuine scares or suspense. Horror elements are abound, but this is more about enjoying yourself than being given the creeps.

Jessica Rothe owns the film as Theresa Gelbman (affectionately referred to by many as Tree). We encounter her on day one waking up in an anonymous dorm the morning after the night before, ready to do the walk of shame back to her sorority (and 80’s sorority horror gets an affectionate wink or two here as well). On first approach Tree is a bit of a bitch, prone to sarcasm and ungratefulness. Yet, crucially, none of this manages to set us against her. She’s got a sparky personality, but it’s still one that’s easy to feel great affection for. Tree doesn’t make the right decision every time, but the film grants her the right to get things wrong. A lot of this goodwill comes from Rothe herself, who makes her character unapologetic and, damn it, a strong argument for said character type. Why should she apologise for herself? Nevertheless, it’s clear some of her life choices could benefit from course correction; her cliché affair with one of her professors (Charles Aitken) being a prime example. And isn’t that the larger, comforting message here? Don’t worry kids, you’re going to make mistakes, but you will learn from them.

At the end of day one, Tree is confronted and chased by a figure in a black hoodie and a mask. This person kills her and lo, the day resets. Our second pass finds Tree walking the same path with confusion. As has become standard for this type of story, it isn’t until pass three that she starts trying to work things out and win the game. You can read the tone this is going to take in the mask of her murderer. It’s not eerie like Michael Myers or even as comically grim as the mask from Scream; it’s a weird baby-faced creation. Kinda kooky and in turn suggesting that this might all be tough to take seriously. At no point, in fact, is Happy Death Day particularly asking you to take it seriously. But it is asking you to have a good time, and on that score it delivers, even besting Edge Of Tomorrow when it comes to the obligatory mid-movie montage of trial and error repeats.

The whodunnit element is engaging, with some diverting red herrings thrown in there for good measure, along with an escaped-serial-killer subplot which works its way into the narrative like a wildcard. The reveal is quite guessable, but even if you get there before the movie, it’s fun trying to pick out exactly how it’s going to get there. There are pleasures along the way; a variety of (rather bloodless) deaths, a good portion of witty dialogue (Tree can muster a barbed put-down even at her weakest) and even a little romance between her and nice-guy Carter (Israel Broussard) that gets you on their side thanks to the warm performances. Sure, in its final act, Happy Death Day slightly overplays the saccharine as Tree learns to change her wicked ways, but it’s all handled with a buoyancy that reassures the audience that anything too schmaltzy surely won’t outstay its welcome.

If it’s grue you’re after then maybe stick it out for Jigsaw, which will no doubt revel in severed limbs and splattered blood. But will you honestly care about anyone? I’d be surprised. Here, however, you have a playful popcorn chomper on your hands; a colourful movie with charm to spare, largely through how unassuming it is. Nothing about Happy Death Day screams ambition. It doesn’t pander for an audience. Yet it may very well find one. This little underdog has the potential to become a cult classic; perhaps not relished by the many, but beloved by a few. Count me in.

Score:  

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