Happy Death Day was released Friday, Oct. 13, and is still in theaters.
Happy Death Day follows through on an interesting conceit, and an interesting character who is well-written enough to not only have an actual arc, but also be the best thing about the movie (go figure!) However, it is not without its flaws. Tree (Jessica Rothe…and yes, that’s her character’s name. Initially I thought it was a nickname, like Trina or Trish or something. But no. Tree.) wakes up in the dorm of Carter (Israel Broussard) the day after a party, hungover and despondent. It is clear that these are her two most consistent traits, as she is rude to Carter, snippy with her sorority sisters, and just a generally bitchy, insufferable person in general. She is having an affair with one of her professors (played with a slimy selfishness by Charles Aitken), ignoring one of the guys with whom she’d hooked up, unerringly hungover for most of her days, ignoring the calls from her father, and rude to her roommate, who hand-made a cupcake to celebrate Tree’s birthday. On her way to a party, Tree is stalked and stabbed by a babyface-masked killer.
And then she wakes up to the previous day to relive the entire day again. Over and over and over again. (Sound familiar? It should. Groundhog Day is name-dropped and discussed in the last scene, and a stuffed groundhog appears on Tree’s bed in a few shots). The added bonus is that eventually the trauma Tree undergoes begins to manifest itself each time she wakes up; she becomes weaker and less clear-headed each time she returns.
It’s a familiar conceit that plays out in a fun way while offering nothing truly new or unique. As a genre film, there are scarier films out there (and bloodier ones as well), and the film suffers by one of the weirdest, most-rushed revelations I’ve seen in years (seriously, Tree figures out her killer’s motives and methods in the span of maybe two minutes, and all on a barely noticeable detail). Director Christopher Landon is clearly enjoying the structure here, throwing in a few interesting shots and camera work — and a pretty well-executed montage of Tree trying and failing to figure out her killer’s identity, each time getting offed in more outlandish ways — but not necessarily succeeding too well when it comes to building tension or genuine scares. Perhaps the conceit of knowing Tree can die any number of times hurt building any true tension (if she’s going to come back, what does it matter whether Tree lives or dies?), as well as the limitations of a PG-13 rating kept this movie from having any real teeth. What a director could have done with more freedom and a few gallons of red temper paint is something worth wondering…
However, Jessica Rothe is GREAT in this movie. Truly fantastic. Charismatic. Funny. Lively. Photogenic (get your mind out of the gutters…I mean REALLY photogenic. She films really well). Good sense of comedic timing. Great sense of pacing. Not afraid to be seen onscreen farting for half-a-minute. She almost single-handedly saves this film from being a trite, forgettable, hackneyed, one-note, boring slog. She’s vivacious enough to be believable as a pampered sorority sister, and really sells the “being a shitty person” aspect without making her character entirely unlikable. Midway through, when she actually tries to atone for all of her shitty behavior, it was actually charming to watch her evolve (although the last act takes her character into a different direction that didn’t quite work…either logically, nor for her character), and she sells the emotional baggage she has with her estranged father. Seriously…her scene with her father was genuinely moving and well crafted. While her only other major (MAJOR) high profile work was in last year’s La La Land, hopefully she is given the opportunity to get a few more leading roles, as she is funny and charismatic as hell (imagine a preppier version of Kaitlin Olsen to get a better sense of her demeanor), and knows how to play with her one-liners. She isn’t one-note, something these sorority archetypes usually remain, and it was more satisfying to actually watch her develop and learn as a person (about herself, not just the plot! Holy shit! Actually caring about a deliberately shitty character in a horror film!) than it was to watch her even solve her own murder (which, ultimately, didn’t even matter). DP Toby Oliver, likewise, shoots this film like he has something to prove, and this is a a thriller that isn’t scared to *GASP!* show you where characters are in relation to each other, nor lay out geography in a way that isn’t confusing and the action is easy to follow!
To get a sense of how well this films works as a slasher…notice how little time I’ve spent actually talking about the slashing and kills. But at the end of the day, none of that matters: this is a character study with a horror film wrapped around it, and I was wildly more interested in Tree as a character (despite her weird name) than in any of the other madness going on around her. With no explanation given as to why Tree is repeating her day (it doesn’t really matter….), and some rather dubious leaps in logic and suspension-of-belief (again…this film plays MIGHTY heavily with logic and plausibility in the last act), this movie just isn’t scary or particularly suspenseful, but it IS fun as hell, and, again, that’s due mainly to Ms. Rothe and her chemistry with her costars (they’re all truly aces….we actually wind up caring about a group of stuck-up sorority bitches. And they are…they’re really bitchy to each other. I mean that in all sincerity).
While not an instant classic as most of Blumhouse Production’s horror films tend to be, this gets the job done: fun, fast, and done in under 1.5 hours, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Just don’t expect many scares, or much blood. Somewhere (HOPEFULLY) is an R-rated version of this movie…for now, this is a serviceable, background one-woman show worth watching for the characters, not the cartilage. However, hopefully the $26 million haul off of a $5 million budget shows that smart filmmaking and original concepts will beat out Friday the 13th #20: Jason Is A Fucking Chrononaut? Why Not? and we see more horror filmmakers making slashers that reach for the golden ring. Because even if they don’t quite stick the landing, when they’re twirling in the air, it’s a hell of a show.
Oh, and props to their set designer for putting up a poster for MST3K: The Movie in Carter’s room in prominent view.
2.5/5 Stuffed Groundhogs (right smack in the middle. And the good part is mainly her).