by Philip Price
The test for a movie that shows us the same thing over and over again is whether it makes us want to return to it over and over again. Does it use this technique in a way that it twists the conventions of whatever genre it is being applied to in a unique enough fashion that it brings something fresh to what we've seen before? In short, does it make something familiar feel born again-the same way our protagonist feels every time they wake up with another opportunity to live their best life. That is ultimately what these kinds of movies are about, right? The hypothetical shot at being able to live your life over and over again to the point you appreciate and/or realize what one has been taking for granted and how much there is to truly be thankful for. This doesn't change with writer's Scott Lobdell's (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”) interpretation of the material in “Happy Death Day” as he adapts it for the horror/teen slasher genre, but the basic idea of applying it to this kind of movie with the added caveat of our main character having to put together the pieces of who's trying to kill her in a single day is pretty ingenious with director Christopher B. Landon (“Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) mining the material and the setting for all its worth in his execution. Landon, son of the late Michael Landon, has a knack for mixing scares and humor and eliciting the fun that can come from being scared. In other words, he understands that being afraid should entail a whole range of emotions and not just the single one that causes you to jump from your seat. Due to this, it would be easy to mistake his latest for more of a comedy than a horror/thriller, but that it layers in elements of each of these with effective measure is what makes the movie such a fun ride to go along with. Sure, we've seen this kind of situation play out before, most notably in “Groundhog Day” and since in other genres through the likes of “Source Code,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and the countless iterations of William Dean Howells' 1892 short story "Christmas Every Day" that you've no doubt seen at least one version of around the holidays, but in taking this concept and applying it to a cheeky genre exercise like “Scream” both Lobdell and Landon have created a knowing horror flick that revels in the main trope and has fun with the archetypes. So yeah, I'd watch “Happy Death Day” again. And probably again.
Landon exercises his love of the teen slasher movie from the get-go, opening on the bright and vibrant campus of a college in Louisiana-it's tall, likely historic bell tower hovering over every other building in sight. Within a muggy and disjointed dorm room Teresa, who goes by Tree (Jessica Rothe), wakes up to find that she has spent the night with a boy she's never met before named Carter (Israel Broussard). Tree hurriedly gets out of bed, struggling to find her clothes and disregard Carter's t-shirt as a nervous Carter informs her of his name and that she was pretty wasted at whatever party they were attending the night before. Tree quickly leaves before having to spend too much time with this movie's version of the sympathetic and sweet male friend that will have been there all along. As Tree leaves the dorm room to make her way to her sorority house she encounters several distinct events including being asked to sign a petition to help stop global warming, the lawn sprinklers coming on, a car alarm going off, and a round of hazing by a local fraternity that brings one pledge to his knees. Oh, and apparently, it's also Tree's birthday. We know this because of her ringtone which goes off because her dad (Jason Bayle) calls her, but Tree never seems inclined to answer. Upon arriving at her sorority house, we meet Tree's "best friend" and main source of competition in Danielle (Rachel Matthews) as well as her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) who is a hard-working medical student that doesn't exactly fit in with the rest of the girls in her sorority. She has made Tree a cupcake for her birthday, which Tree naturally refuses to eat because of the carbs, as Lori fails to get a word in edge-wise before Tree realizes she is late for class where she may or may not have a thing for her (married) professor (Charles Aitken). Tree continues throughout her day, taking little action that comes from consideration, but more that comes from being so self-absorbed she can barely see what is going on in the world around her. A sorority house meeting at lunch where the girls fat shame a sister who has more than a cracker for lunch and where Tree essentially chastises Carter for attempting to return her necklace to her in public are only a few things that highlight her terrible attitude. That is, until she gets dressed and begins to walk (alone, for some reason) to that night's party of choice where she encounters a concerning set-up of traffic barriers and a creepy musical jewelry box that climaxes with the sight of a hooded figure wearing a Bayfield Babies mascot mask that is just odd enough to make you wonder who decided it was a good idea for a school mascot in the first place. Tree is swiftly dispensed of via the baby killers weapon of choice, a knife, only for Tree to once again wake up in Carter's dorm room only to live her birthday and the day she dies all over again.
With “Happy Death Day,” one must be willing to give the movie a shot. Not only is there patience required in allowing time for the movie to get into the routine of its repetitive nature, but there is also the fact that Tree isn't necessarily the most endearing of protagonists. Tree, for all accounts and purposes, is kind of an asshole as she talks about potential suspects in the form of that "Uber driver I spit on" or "that tiny girl I got fired from TJ Maxx". So yeah, we get to the point fast and early that Tree is a totally terrible person, but we also inherently understand this is necessary because her trajectory must be that of realizing she's not a good person and that she needs to stop being so selfish and start seeing others for who they are rather than only for what they can offer her. As expected, the film goes through the obligatory initial experience of the day by detailing everything that is wrong with Tree's view of her world while the second and third are a mixed bag of, "I can't believe this is really happening," and "How do I fix this?!?!" It is on the fourth loop of this same day that Tree begins to relish in the possibilities she's being presented and the obstacles she must overcome to move forward with her life. With this arc to carry Jessica Rothe, despite looking like a younger version of Blake Lively but being the same age, gives an increasingly appealing performance as the film goes on and the days become less and less like the one before. As Rothe's Tree begins to come to these small realizations of who she really is after seeing herself be put to the same character tests day after day she also begins to come to terms with the fact she's harbored such anger, guilt, and sadness over the death of her mother that she's buried it so far beneath who she thought she'd be that she's completely lost sight of the person she was when her mom was still alive. This slightly unexpected bit of emotional heft stands to make Tree an endearing character which is only somewhat undone by a late scene with her father that rings false. Still, the point is that in realizing her faults and deciding to find ways to improve upon them both the movie and its central character take on this aforementioned tongue in cheek tone that acknowledges this isn't your standard horror movie because they're not afraid to use Demi Lovato's "Confident" for their montage song or acknowledge so much of what they're going for by having a nurse read a cheap and trashy romance novel or other characters watch “Teen Mom 2” so as to say “Happy Death Day” is a cheap and trashy horror movie, but you'll be entertained nonetheless. That said, Landon doesn't allow his tone to slip into a fully self-aware mode, but more one where it only intermittently will wink and nod at the audience-playing with enough genre tropes to be subversive on its own terms while other times intentionally giving into them to rev up the audience’s nostalgia and affinity for movies of the same ilk.
So yeah, “Happy Death Day” is by no means a great or innovative piece of cinema, but it has a very clear and appealing intention that it executes well and in a knowing fashion. Are there things that could be improved despite the screenplay's ability to balance new perspectives with old? Of course. The most glaring of which being the reveal of the culprit. Obviously, this review won't give away any spoilers, but as the film comes to its climactic third act and the plot has become less and less thick there is an air of disappointment despite knowing there is likely a twist of some sort in the works for the denouement. There is a strand of a connection throughout, but it is blink, and you'll miss it (I blinked, apparently, because I had to have a friend catch me up after I had a few questions post-screening) and makes for a kind of lousy excuse for a finale that doesn't satisfactorily answer the questions of motivation, connection, or the all-important question of why? Why does Tree get this opportunity to re-live this day during this time in her life that could alter the direction she goes for the remainder of her life? While that denouement sequence does largely redeem the movie and answers most of the lingering questions over the misdirect this doesn't necessarily make them more satisfying just for being present. Does the reveal hold up? Maybe-it's something I'll be looking for when I re-visit “Happy Death Day,” but the point is I'll be re-visiting the movie due to the fact it is such a good time. Landon's touch is just lighthearted enough to where this isn't so heavy to be draining while it is neither substantial enough to require every ounce of focus to view it while Lobdell's curve ball of Tree having a cutoff of how many times she can wake back up after being killed offers the movie an unexpected urgency in Tree having to solve her own murder. I heard someone describe “Happy Death Day” as a "slumber party movie" and this encapsulates the kind of experience this movie delivers perfectly. Landon knows how to capture an effective action scene while allowing the PG-13 audience to imagine more of the gore rather than show it himself (which is likely even more effective as it's left up to the imagination) while the cast is clearly having a lot of fun, and the familiarity is the kind of familiar that is fuzzy-Halloween warmth to the fullest with a side of wise sarcasm while keeping an unsophisticated edge that makes the message of "today is the first day of the rest of your life" slightly meaningful, but wholly witty and entertaining.