Mark Reviews Movies

Happy Death Day


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Christopher Landon

Cast: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Jason Bayle, Caleb Spillyards, Phi Vu, Rob Mello, Blaine Kern III

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity)

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 10/13/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 13, 2017

If we get one more movie about a character repeating the same day over and over again, we can start calling it a trend. Until then, here's Happy Death Day, in which a college student has to keep living through the same day over and over again. It's her birthday. It's also, as you may have garnered from the title, the day that a mysterious killer ends her life.

If we are going to continue to get movies with this central gimmick, let them at least be the result of someone being smart enough to see opportunities such as this one. Horror movies, especially those of the slasher variety, are inherently repetitive. We get a cast of characters. They're picked off one or sometimes two at time, until someone figures out a way to defeat the unstoppable killer, escapes, or ends up being the last, recognizable person to fall victim to the killer's knife/machete/chainsaw/what-have-you. The only things that change are the location and the method of murder, but the end result is always the same (The buildup is usually the same, too): There's a lengthy sequence of suspense, followed by the inevitable, bloody payoff.

Here, there's only one victim (for the most part, although the number of innocent bystanders who fall changes depending on the specifics of the protagonist's actions). The location changes (We get an empty street, a couple of bedrooms, and a hospital wing, to name a few) and so, too, does the means of her demise.

Yes, for a while, it's basically your typical slasher movie, but screenwriter Scott Lobdell does a decent job of tricking us. We might subconsciously realize that the film is going through a routine and overly familiar process, but we're also caught up in the gimmick—just enough that our focus is on wondering if and for how long he can maintain the novelty of the premise. It's a bit of a shock, not only that he does, but also that he finds ways of evolving the simplistic gimmick into something more.

The sole victim is Tree (Jessica Rothe), a college student with some issues. She's selfish, off-putting, above-it-all, and uncaring. By the end of her first go-around on her birthday, she has blown off a seemingly genuine sort of nice guy named Carter (Israel Broussard), who let her crash in his dorm after a drunken night of partying (One of the amusing gags here is that, every morning, she wakes up with the knowledge that a killer is coming to get her, and she does so with a killer hangover). She also has blown off all of her sorority sisters, including her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who just wants to be Tree's friend, and she's involved in an affair with her married professor (played by Charles Aitken). Her father keeps calling, and she keeps ignoring the calls.

Of course, she has a back story to explain her negative traits, and it's surprising how well Lobdell and director Christopher Landon shift to taking that back story seriously, even after taking this weird existential crisis into the comic realm where it belongs. A lot of that element's success, though, belongs to Rothe, who isn't giving the usual horror-movie performance here. At the beginning of the film, she essentially has to play one of those characters whose demise is met with a shrug. By the end, she has to have transformed into a sympathetic heroine, and it's impressive how well Rothe plays both of those roles. The latter is especially noteworthy, since we're left entirely unsympathetic toward Tree the first few times she goes through the day.

To cut to the chase, though, Tree is killed by someone wearing a baby mask (The college mascot is a big baby, for some reason). Immediately after, she wakes up in Carter's dorm room, and it's her birthday again. No matter how she tries to avoid the masked killer, she ends up dead and has to start the day over again.

None of it is particularly scary (although there's a sequence in a parking garage that's staged well enough that, in a different movie with a different agenda, it could have been frightening), but the film really isn't trying to be, especially once Tree realizes her predicament. She tries to talk to a few people about it, but only Carter is willing to entertain the possibility that her ludicrous story might be true. He suggests that Tree spend her "infinite lives" trying to discover who is going to kill/already has killed her. There's an amusing montage of her going through the obvious suspects—a clingy guy who keeps texting her, the professor's wife, the head of the sorority—and checking them off her list, only to find herself being checked off the killer's agenda.

It's only funny, one supposes, if we can get past the viciousness of having someone repeatedly killed for no reason other than laughs. Then again, how many horror movies have tried to appeal to lesser emotions than humor with even more gruesome sights, less intelligence, and a far higher body count? Given the choice between clever and cruel, it shouldn't even be a choice.

There's a bit more to the film than a joke, though, as we get a real sense of Tree learning the error of her ways and confronting the pain at the heart of her attitude on life. It's not much, but it helps to ground Happy Death Day in something more than a gimmick. The gimmick works, too, but it's always nice to have a little more.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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