Horror Film Review: Happy Death Day (dir by Christopher B. Landon)


So, imagine this.

You’re a college student.  You’re a member of a sorority.  You start your day by waking up in a stranger’s bed, with a hangover.  When you walk across campus, you blow off the girl trying to get you to sign her anti-climate change petition.  When you get back to your sorority house, you’re rude to her roommate and refuse to eat the birthday cupcake that she made for you.  You body shame a girl at lunch.  You’re sleeping with one of your professors.  You’re rude to your father.  You’re going to a party.

Oh!  And did I mention that you’re in a slasher film and that there’s a really creepy figure wearing a baby mask who is following you around?

Seriously, you are so dead.

That’s the situation that Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds herself in 2017’s Happy Death Day.  It’s her birthday and, unfortunately, she’s murdered at the end of it.  Of course, if you’ve ever seen in a slasher film, it’s not a shock when Tree dies.  She’s the quintessential self-centered girl who always gets killed in these type of movies.

(For the record, I would probably die within the first ten minutes of any slasher film.)

However, in Tree’s case, she gets another chance.  And then another one after that.  And then, another one after that… every night, Tree dies.  Every morning, Tree wakes up in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) and she has to relive the last day of her life all over again.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t take long for Tree to realize that she’s in a time loop.  (Also, to the film’s credit, Carter specifically points out that Tree’s story sounds exactly like the plot of Groundhog Day.  “What’s that?” Tree asks.  Carter explains that it’s a film with Bill Murray.  “Who’s Bill Murray?” Tree replies.)  Once Tree figures out that she’s going to have to keep living the same day over and over again, she sets out trying not to die.  She doesn’t go to the party but that just means that the killer comes to her.  She tries to spend a day barricaded in her dorm room, just to find that the killer is hiding in a corner.  She follows the various suspects around as they go about their day.  It seems like no matter what she does, she can’t keep the killer from catching her.

On the plus side, as a result of having to deal with the same crap over and over again, she does become a better person.  She’s less rude and condescending.  She grows more confident in herself and stops worrying so much about what everyone else is going to think about her.  Of course, becoming a better person isn’t going to do her much good if she keeps dying every night….

Happy Death Day is a clever combination of horror and comedy.  It’s a movie that’s smart enough not take itself too seriously.  Even when Tree becomes a nicer person, both the character and the film retain their sarcastic edge.  Even when she learns to face the world with positivity and happiness, the film seems to be gently mocking the ease by which film characters can go from being self-centered to thoroughly altruistic.  Meanwhile, the killer may be frightening but again, the film mines plenty of dark humor from the character’s pure determination.  No matter Tree does, that killer eventually shows up.

It’s a precarious balancing act, trying to be scary and funny at the same time.  Fortunately, Happy Death Day benefits from a clever script and a good lead performance from Jessica Rothe.  Rothe gives an intelligent and empathetic performance as Tree.  It’s impossible not to sympathize with her frustration as she wakes up to discover that she has to go through the exact same day yet again.  It’s a sign of the strength of Rothe’s performance that you sympathize with Tree even before she becomes a nicer person.

Happy Death Day is a clever film and one that I’m surprised to say I missed when it was originally released.  If you also missed it, now’s a great time to catch it!

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