The increasing popularity of the time loop as a plot device was understandable given the way the world was (and still is) crumbling around us. Getting a do-over could not be more desirable. Of course, it would be more meaningful if it happened to the people that need repeated proof the path they’re on isn’t healthy, and that’s exactly what happens to Theresa ‘Tree’ Gelbman in Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day.
It may seem like yesterday (or today) since this time loop murder mystery arrived on our screens, but it’s already been five whole years, and in that time Landon has presented us with an expanded sequel and then a delightful horror spin on Freaky Friday, but the real promise of his funky fusions started here, at Bayfield University, over and over again.
College student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) awakens on her birthday, in the college dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) after a heavy night of drinking. She grumpily stumbles out into the day, has several encounters with various people in her life, and she’s also very keen to avoid any talk of her birthday. The day shows Tree is a bitchy, vain student who is seemingly distant from her father. She’s also having a secret relationship with a married doctor that doesn’t look like it’s going to end all that well. Her rather miserable birthday ends prematurely when she’s stalked and killed by a hooded killer wearing a baby mask.
Then she wakes up. Once again in the college dorm room of Carter Davis, once again hearing the same words from his mouth, experiencing the same encounters outside, and once again meeting her end at the hands of the baby-faced killer.
And so, Tree slowly starts to piece together the day and figure out a list of suspects. While the film doesn’t ever tell you outright what the solution to the time loop is, we’re supposed to assume that Tree’s logic of finding and thwarting her killer is the way out. Refreshingly, Happy Death Day doesn’t care to explain why Tree is stuck in a time loop either, saving that as the catalyst for a sequel. The time loop stuff is there for Tree to grow as a person, but its main purpose is to make a slasher whodunnit feel invigoratingly fresh.
It’s fair to say that Jessica Rothe is key to this nutty premise working out. She shows off a great range as Tree, with a comedic lead, dramatic actor, horror final girl, and wannabe detective all getting slapped on her resume in the space of one film. The rest of the cast provides pieces of the puzzle, but Rothe is the solution.
That’s not to discount what Cristopher Landon brings to the table. With Happy Death Day, there are fun onion (funion?) layers of detail to discover on each rewatch, from jokes that get funnier with foreknowledge to emotional beats that hit harder. As much as Rothe is crucial to the film’s success, even she wouldn’t be able to shine properly if Landon had flubbed his lines, so to speak.
It’s an interesting film to look at in terms of Landon’s career. Happy Death Day is the clear ‘breakout’ moment for him, and you can see this in the throughline of films made before (the juvenile, yet sweet-natured Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse and the promising yet muddled Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) and after (the admirable sequel Happy Death Day 2U, and the zenith of Landon’s career to date in Freaky). This is not only a director getting better with subsequent films, but one finding their swagger early on and reveling in the confidence that brings. Sometimes the simplest pitches make for the most enjoyable results, and Landon’s ability to turn the pitches for non-horror comedies — such as Groundhog Day and Freaky Friday — into the inspiration for something that works both as a comedy and as horror is frankly outstanding.
Fittingly, repeat viewing of Happy Death Day has seen me grow fonder and fonder of what it does. It’s really an almost meta experience that I started out not being all that sure I cared for, and through the power of reexperiencing it, I’ve learned so much about it that wasn’t in my eye line to begin with. That, to me, is the true genius of Happy Death Day — it works when viewed over and over and over.
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