Trailers are tricksy mistresses, especially in the past year. Between hiding some foul shit, and completely misleading people into thinking you’re going to watch a horror flick; marketers have this nasty tendency of attracting people for more baser instincts. But while Happy Death Day had a typical slasher horror trailer, the film is actually a dark comedy more than anything else…and ends becoming a much better product than what was actually be sold.
So we have a sorority girl named Tree (Jessica Rothe) who wakes up in the dorm of a guy named Carter (Israel Broussard) after a hard night of drinking. It’s her birthday, and she is extra special shitty on this particular day as she goes about her vapid and vain life. However, on her way to a party she gets murdered by a stranger in a creepy baby mask…only to find herself awake in Carter’s bed as soon as she dies. Tree slowly realizes that she is experiencing her birthday in the same exact sequence as the day before, up to and including getting murdered only in a different way this time. Caught in this time loop, Tree figures out the murderer knows it’s her birthday so she resolves to figure out who among her friends is the killer to finally see tomorrow. One tiny problem: unlike Groundhog Day, Tree’s deaths still leave her with permanent body damage, limiting the number of times she could die before she can uncover the mystery.
While that setup sort of sounds scary, believe me when I say the movie itself only plays out like a horror flick in the first 15 minutes. After that, the film embraces the ridiculousness of the situation, and plays itself out as more of a dark comedy as Tree goes about sleuthing in very humorous ways before getting killed over and over again. On top of that, while experiencing her multiple deaths, you have what I call the Live. Die. Repeat. Phenomenon where all hatred you may have had to this character erodes as they learn to be a less shitty and selfish person on their way to resolving their problem. It’s a neat little arc where a character’s development aligns with the plot, so you find yourself rooting for a protagonist you initially reviled not a couple of minutes ago. Bonus points do have to go to Jessica Rothe, who pulls off the character turn flawlessly.
At first, Rothe sells you on the idea that her character is a low down, absolute ghoul who brazenly treats others as beneath her and revels in an affair with her married professor. However, constantly dying shows Tree how vapid her life had become and how terribly she has behaved towards others, including her father. Rothe is also able to live up to become this different person as the film goes along and she even displays a touching and emotional moment with another character that you rarely see in a horror flick.
Speaking of which, you really shouldn’t dismiss this movie if you’re not a fan of slasher flicks. For one, there’s barely any blood and absolutely nothing that could be considered gory or disgusting. Part of that comes from the shoestring budget courtesy of my “good” friend, Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, thus keeping the focus on telling a decent story rather than using gore as a crutch to tantalize the crowd that usually likes stuff like Saw and Hostel. You know, perfectly level headed people who demand copious amounts of nudity and grizzly deaths to work out their bizarre repressions. But Happy Death Day will not satiate their hunger for such odd delights as it aims to be more welcoming for general audiences and is far more focused on just telling a decent story with strong actors capable of delivering the major points the film aims to complete.
And being someone who gives major points for getting characters and story right, I give the film far more credit and much hearty recommendation as well. I can easily see this entering my rotation for subsequent Halloween movie marathons alongside my choices for The Monster Squad, It Follows and this year’s It. Major props are owed to the solid cast, the clever writing courtesy of comic book writer Scott Lobdell, and the directing of Christopher B. Landon. Who is this strange person who I singled out you may ask? Why he wrote or directed all the sequels to Paranormal Activity…you know, the absolute bottom of the freaking bin for garbage horror flicks that aren’t remotely scary or interesting. Consider myself pleasantly surprised that he managed to redeem himself after all these years.
Honestly, couldn’t find much to criticize. Hell, the movie doesn’t even overstay its welcome by clocking in at an even 90 minutes, getting you to its conclusion with little faffing about. And I can’t stress enough how good this cast is, because I legitimately want to see most of them in higher profile projects, particularly from Jessica Rothe who only played a blink and you’ll miss it role in La La Land. Also, she and her co-star Israel Broussard had genuinely sweet chemistry together, so big ups him for managing that as well.
I was thinking about just awarding this a high MATINEE as the film isn’t exactly what I call essential, but then I thought to my own review of Wonder Woman where I gave a slightly higher rating based on how good I felt walking out of the theater and continued to do so. A similar feeling came over me as well when it came to Happy Death Day, and I can easily give this a strong recommendation for people curious about slasher flicks but would like something to ease them into it. So I’ll give this a low…