At the hands of a sadistic and depraved killer, she will endure a terrifying, unimaginable brutal death–and it will all happen again.” That quote is an excerpt from IMDb, but it’s not describing Happy Death Day. It comes from the summary of the similarly themed slasher Salvage which came out about 11 years ago and was an official selection at Sundance in 2006.
No doubt, among some purists who are aficionados of obscure indie horror, the world would be more equitable if Death Day was forever compared to the unsettling but inventive gem that is Salvage. But, box office receipts ought to prove the former can stand on its own merits – at no. 1, beating out Blade Runner 2049, no less.
Finding out Happy Death Day’s screenplay is penned by acclaimed comic book writer Scott Lobdell (X-Men, Red Hood and the Outlaws) puts another tally in the give-it-a-chance column. And the film is worth it.
The story centers around Tree (Jessica Rothe) – which isn’t short for anything as far as I could tell – a stuck-up sorority sister who keeps repeating her fatal birthday over until she figures out the identity of the psycho-stalker in the demented infant mask out to slaughter her.
Appropriation of the Groundhog Day premise in other genres is nothing new. Beyond Salvage, there was Edge of Tomorrow. That’s a fact not lost on Lobdell and all involved. They have fun with the material and even drop a reference to the Bill Murray classic in the end (of course, Tree, savvy as she turns out to be, has never seen it).
True to form for this type of outing, Tree may relive the same day but each reliving is unique in itself and goes in different directions. One day has her barricading herself in her dorm room to no avail. In others, she winds up in the hospital or at an off-campus diner eating a burger and fries like it’s her last meal (well, it sort of is) or hangs herself in a belltower. Each time, only the result is the same.
Jessica Rothe turns in a sassy, bravura performance in the process. As Tree’s resurrectional do-overs drag on she develops more pluck and resourcefulness. At first, she dodges the killer, then the guy she keeps waking up next to – Carter (Israel Broussard) – urges her to make a list of suspects. Each one is pursued and crossed off in comical fashion. The best sequence comes when Tree stakes out behind a fountain wearing special-ops attire, camo face paint, and a night vision headset.
She also evolves as a human being because of her ordeal, becoming quite likable by the final act. Going from self-absorbed tart to vulnerable empathizer, she makes peace with her friends and her father, opens her heart to Carter as a love interest, maturely ends her affair with a teacher, and becomes a crusader for the underdog. Chocolate milk that spills on her early on becomes an implement for getting even with a calorie counting prophyte.
Perspective receives some touch-ups also for each restart. The movie begins in a rather typical cinematic fashion of standard cuts, eyeline, shot-reverse, conventional sound design, and predictable college atmosphere. Once day two hits, director Christopher Landon (writer of the Paranormal Activity sequels) and cinematographer Toby Oliver bring on the canted angles and fish-eye distortions. Sounds become muffled on cue, too.
Now for the downside: how Tree winds up locked in a time warp is never really explained. Salvage, Edge of Tomorrow, and other films usually offer some kind of explanation, whether it’s supernatural or biochemical. How the killer is always able to find her is another mystery. He doesn’t appear to possess any knowledge of the time loop or the capacity for such presence of mind. No character other than Tree gives any indication of being in on the twist. Only Carter is ever told about it but strictly when it serves the narrative.
Happy Death Day will take you along for its rollercoaster ride from start to finish, prompting you to jump accordingly at the scares and sudden moments.
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Happy Death Day sounds like a run-of-the-mill holiday slasher at a glance, and while it isn’t the first of its kind, it stands out by embracing genre cliches with wit and charm. Sizable audiences were curious enough to discover what it was about. Any lingering skeptics should be too. A welcome entry in a growing sub-genre.
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