Written by: Scott Lobdell
Directed by: Christopher Landon
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, and Ruby Modine
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"So I'm supposed to keep dying until I can figure out who my killer is?"
For decades, the slasher genre has thrived on the promising audiences the chance to watch young people die horribly, at least until the cast is whittled down to a final girl that you may or may not even want to see survive. Happy Death Day throws a wrinkle into this formula by promising the audience the chance to watch the same young person die over and over again at the hands of a masked killer. In doing so, it subtly subverts the formula, as its Groundhog Day inspired twist slowly draws the audience into wanting to watch a typically dispensable sorority girl survive. It’s one hell of a clever riff, one that transmutes the audience’s bloodlust into a different desire altogether, resulting in a rousing, unexpectedly sentimental slasher.
When Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on her birthday, it’s under less than ideal circumstances. Drowsy and just emerging from the previous night’s drunken stupor, she finds herself in an unfamiliar dorm room, horrified that she’s apparently hooked up with Carter (Israel Broussard), a random guy she barely knows. After quickly throwing her clothes on, she heads across the quad to her sorority house, where she’s greeted by nosy sisters and a kind (if not somewhat exasperated) roommate (Ruby Modine). They grill her about her previous night’s exploits, but not before reminding her to prepare for yet another big party that night. Unfortunately, she never makes it, as a killer wearing an oversized baby-face mask stabs her, impossibly sending her right back to Carter’s disheveled dorm room all over again, forced to live through this agonizing loop until she can figure out who’s stalking her.
At first, it appears as if director Christopher Landon will indulge this premise for all its trashy schlock potential. You watch as this awful girl flails about, repeating each day in an attempt to thwart her mysterious killer from doing her in. No matter what she does—board up her room, hightail it out of town—she can’t outrun her grisly fate. As the deaths pile up, Happy Death Day takes on the tenor of a black comedy, especially once Landon resorts to capturing Tree’s various deaths via a glib montage that has her moving through a suspects list, only to find her killer always shadowing her. It’s entertaining in the traditional slasher sense, as you can’t help but be intrigued (and ultimately impressed) by how Landon will envision the inevitable carnage.
That Tree will die is a foregone conclusion; how she’ll do so becomes a clever (if not demented) game of cat-and-mouse that cuts right to the heart of this genre’s appeal. Only a PG-13 rating prevents it from being an over-the-top splatterfest, but Landon nicely skirts around such a mandate by staging terrific stalk-and-slash sequences inside a familiar array of genre settings, including hospital corridors, dimly lit parking garages, and sorority houses. Only time will tell just how indelible the killer’s baby-face get-up will become, but it certainly cuts a striking image on this first impression, allowing Landon to deliver the primal slasher essentials: an arresting killer, an imperiled sorority girl, plenty of carnage, and a frenetic, screeching score that recalls the genre’s glory days.
Landon wisely realizes that even this clever spin has its limits though, and wisely slows the proceedings down just before they grow too tedious. Right around the moment Tree herself begins to reflect on herself—particularly her growing relationship with Carter, the boy who’s destined to forget their every interaction when the day resets—Happy Death Day begins to explore a sort of moral salvation for this doomed girl. When discovering her killer’s identity grows to be almost hopeless, she begins to consider that maybe all of these extra chances are just that: literally an opportunity to better herself and reconsider how she treats those around her. Ultimately, it’s the same path offered by other time loop narratives, only this one is lined with more butcher knives and axes.
Happy Death Day especially has its work cut out for it, though. Make no mistake: Tree is an awful little shit, a reckless party animal looking to ruthlessly uphold every stereotype associated with vapid sorority girls. There’s a reason these characters are often among the first to go in this genre, and it’s exactly the reason you don’t mind watching her get offed early on. Her every interaction is marked with a cold, sneering contempt for just about everyone around her, from the sweet freshman sorority inductee to her poor roommate. She doesn’t think twice about blowing off and insulting a guy who won’t stop texting her, nor is she the least bit concerned that she’s helping to wreck her professor’s marriage by having an affair with him. She blows off her dad’s phone calls, standing him up for their lunch date because she’s pretty much the Millennial every hand-wringing think-piece warned you about: self-absorbed, callous, and afraid to really commit to anything beyond being awful.
It’s a testament, then, to Rothe’s performance that she finds an actual wounded human being lurking beneath all of the posturing here. At times, Tree is so unrelentingly rotten that it feels like the script is digging a hole for Rothe to climb out of: she trades ridiculous banter throughout, almost becoming a walking Groundhog Day farce as she burps, farts, and strolls naked through the various days. Along the way, that cliché façade peels away in favor of another: that of the repentant girl who has to dig through the pain of her own past trauma to reckon with how it’s twisted her into an appalling shell of the sweet teen she once was. Admittedly, it’s a bit cloying and sentimental, especially when couched in this genre, but Rothe shoulders it well and brings dimensions that you’d never expect to see from Tree when she’s first introduced. Where so many slashers build their reputations on the mangled flesh of dead sorority girls, this one makes one its star, gradually humanizing every step of the way in a refreshing turn of events.
Landon is careful not to let his focus stray too much, though, nor does he allow that schmaltzy sentiment to overwhelm the horror sensibilities here. In fact, he and co-writer Scott Lobdell deviously play against audience expectations, gleefully stringing them along with an increasingly unhinged murder mystery with outrageous twists and turns that would feel quite at home in a giallo. Despite taking an obvious cue from Ivan Reitman’s seminal film, the script isn’t expressly concerned with capturing existential angst of Groundhog Day, preferring instead to send audiences on an unrelenting thrill ride full of deviations, red herrings, and a wildly trashy finale.
In Landon’s hands (and through DP Toby Oliver’s lens), it becomes a slick update of the slasher genre whose sharp pop sensibilities most obviously recall Scream. Even if it isn’t quite as witty as that film (mostly because it’s not preoccupied with being meta), it’s no less invigorating for a genre that’s become all but defined by its formula. With Happy Death Day, Landon has crafted a marvel: a slasher movie that bucks the “rules” that doom victims in favor of bending, breaking, and cheating them in an effort to live.
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