Happy Death Day (2017)
You wouldn’t be blamed for passing over Happy Death Day, Blumhouse’s PG-13 Groundhog Day inspired horror pastiche from two years ago. For all of the low budget micro horror production house’s success, it definitely created a lot more misses than hits. 2017 was starting to turn the studio into more of a hitmaker thanks to higher profile (and both critically and commercially successful fare) like Split and Get Out, but that didn’t mean that every single one of their releases was must-see moviedom. Happy Death Day, released in the classical Halloween window in October, seemed on its face to be a silly little movie where a college girl is forced to relive the last day of her life over and over again as she attempts to solve her inevitable murder before it happens again. It’s the sort of premise that could work with the right touch, and the sort of premise that could provide disastrously ill-conceived with the wrong one.
The subject of this eternal recurrence is Tree (Jessica Rothe), your prototypical vapid mean girl sorority vixen who wakes up on her birthday in the dorm of a stranger and (gasp!) nerd Carter (Israel Broussard). She blows him off, knowing he’s well below her status, and goes about her day generally acting like a terrible person to anyone who approaches her orbit while blowing off repeated phone calls from her dad (even her birthday-themed ringtone is infuriating). Rothe expertly establishes her as the worst sort of human being, entitled and toxically full of herself, so that once a figure in a hoodie and a particularly creepy baby mask murders her on the way to a frat party, it almost can’t be seen as a surprise. It sure seems like she deserves it, and moreover, she’s made such a litany of enemies, the list of suspects has to be incredibly long. Could it be Lori (Roby Modine), her beleaguered roommate who sees Tree throw her peace offering birthday cupcake in the trash right in front of her? Or Danielle (Rachel Matthews) the overbearing leader of their sorority? Or could it be the young girl who asks her to sign a petition to fight global warming outside Carter’s dorm, only to be rebuked in the most casually cruel of ways? The list goes on and on.
It’s clear that director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell have done their research. Both the seminal Groundhog Day and Doug Liman’s sci fi take on the form Edge of Tomorrow play important roles in the structural formation of Happy Death Day . Landon is deliberate in establishing the parameters early on, whether it’s a surprise sprinkler activation soaking some coeds, a car alarm blaring or a frat pledge fainting from exhaustion. The film is happy (apologies) to hit these beats over and over, falling back on the same structure of those other two films (spending a lot of time in the first and second cycles, putting together a montage of quick resets, constantly reiterating the some information to the same people post reset, at least one fake out ending, etc etc). It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it also hasn’t been done to death the way some other popular tropes have been. There’s still some novelty to be found in the form. All of it becomes the backbone to Tree’s discovery that she’s reliving the same day over and over, and serve as an opportunity to track the progress of her redemption arc.
Indeed, just like Phil Connors and William Cage, Happy Death Day is as much about Tree becoming a better person as it is about her catching her impending killer. This is where Rothe needs to excel, making us believe both that she is a terrible person with a list of suspected killers longer than her arm, but also that she is both capable of and receptive to change. Luckily, she’s perfectly cast here. This film is probably her highest profile role to date, and Landon has done well selecting her to lead. She has an innate charm to her even as she treats everyone around her as something akin to dirt, making her understandable and even relatable as her exterior softens. Some of the work to establish a backstory that informs her prickly demeanor can feel tacked on, but it makes for a nice emotional payoff as things fall into place.
There are definitely some hitches here and there with Happy Death Day; the baby mask donned by the killer seems a little too on the nose (no college worth its salt would have a mascot like that, nor would they market such baldly sinister looking masks), and one of the red herrings is a little too red to be a true herring, but luckily they pull back from that in the right way that ensures things fall into place nicely. In a way, Happy Death Day can feel like a bit of low hanging fruit, standing on the shoulders of the giant that came before it (they even call out Groundhog Day by name). And it’s rarely particularly scary; the knowledge that it will all reset at the end of the day if she fails does a pretty good job of undercutting the tension. They do attempt to counteract this by claiming that her injuries persist from reset to reset, but they do a rather poor job of capitalizing on or keeping up with it, abandoning it quickly when Tree needs to be more spry than she should if she’s as full of stab wounds as she would be. There’s plenty of coincidence and contrivance, but that’s par for the course for a high concept thriller like this. On balance, Happy Death Day is a surprisingly effective and entertaining little movie, one that actually seems to earn its impending sequel.