Happy Death Day (2017)

OCTOBER 16, 2017


Full disclosure: my friend was a co-producer on Happy Death Day. Fuller disclosure: I was so tired when I watched it that I actually forgot about that until it was like halfway over, and I was already a big fan of what it was doing by then. But still, I usually avoid reviewing anything that my closer friends worked on, and I'd follow suit here if not for the fact that HOLY SHIT A SLASHER MOVIE IS NUMBER ONE AT THE BOX OFFICE! I mean, every third review I write probably has some kind of reference to a slasher movie that I love, because let's face it: it's my favorite kind of horror movie, and it's not often my needs are being served by Hollywood these days. The last original slasher film (no sequels/remakes) to come out in wide release from a major studio was My Soul To Take, all the way back in 2010 - that's far too goddamn long (and that one was so crazy it was easy to forget that it was indeed a slasher at heart).

So if you think I'm biased or whatever, too damn bad - I'm too happy to have this kind of movie again and I don't want my raves about it to be limited to a few tweets. It's not a perfect film, but it gets so much right that it barely matters, and that they do it with the limitations of a PG-13 rating is just gravy. Hilariously, I rewatched Friday the 13th: The New Blood a few days earlier and was once again aghast at how bloodless the movie is (thanks to the MPAA), and so when watching this I couldn't help but chuckle that it actually has more on-screen impact wounds and blood - with a PG-13 rating by design - than the *still R rated* bloodless Friday the 13th movie (no actual nudity in New Blood either, for the record - I think it might actually get a PG-13 in its current form if not for a few F bombs). For all the complaints about how these movies *need* to be R rated, it's really just a lot of crap - as long as the killer has a good look (check), there are a number of kills (check, albeit with an asterisk, as I'll explain later), some suspense (check!) and a character you want to see survive (check x2), there's no reason they can't serve their purpose just because the murder scenes lack bloodspray.

Of course, it helps to have a hook to make up for it, and that's where the film really shines. Yes, it has a timeloop gimmick that is identical to Groundhog Day's, albeit with a few key differences - one being that our heroine Tree (Jessica Rothe, who will be an A-lister in 2-3 years if this is any indication) doesn't have infinite lives like Phil Connor did. As she learns after four or five deaths, her body is retaining the trauma of whatever killed her (just as her brain is retaining the memories of what happened) and weakening as a result, so eventually she will shut down for good. Also, we don't see anything of her life prior to the loop day - the film opens on her waking up on that day, whereas Groundhog Day gave us a good 10-15 minute glimpse of Phil's life and demeanor before the first time we heard "I Got You Babe". So while the mechanics are the same, there are enough differences to the presentation to justify borrowing the concept (which is not exclusive to Groundhog Day anyway - it was first done in the story "12:01"), and as a bonus someone even points out that Tree's dilemma is a lot like the movie.

But like Phil, she is also someone who is kind of an asshole and seemingly has to become a better person if she wants to actually see tomorrow. It doesn't take long for us to see all of her faults as a human: she's a drunken mess who looks down on most of the people around her (she's a sorority sister, if that helps clarify what we're dealing with here), treats her roommate like shit, sleeps with her married professor, ignores calls from her dad, and mocks one of her sisters' choice of lunch foods. Basically, in slasher terms, she's the girl you want to die first (and will usually die last; since we've already mentioned New Blood, she's basically Melissa), and the thrust of the movie is split between her trying to solve her own murder, but also learn to become more like a Final Girl. It's kind of genius when you think about it (at least if you're a slasher aficionado who understands and embraces these archetype roles) and Rothe does a terrific job at finding that balance - she has to do terrible things in her first day (or two) but without ever crossing the line into full blown monster.

Another smart move on screenwriter Scott Lobdell's part is to mix up the other deaths so that Tree (which I think is a nickname for Theresa) is the only one we see die multiple times, keeping the body count "high" even though no one dies permanently. So on the first day it's just her, but on the second day she lives a bit longer because she knows when to run in the opposite direction, which allows the killer to off someone at her next location before killing her again. Then on the next day she does a lot of things differently, and someone else gets killed. And so on and so on, so that by the end of the movie we've seen just about every single character get killed - as you would in a straightforward slasher - but without it being part of the repetition. Since the killer is seemingly only after her, only offing other people who happen to get in the way, we are spared any sort of "Tree has to figure out how to save each victim in time" kind of video-gamey scenario (think Bill Murray realizing he's running a few seconds behind and needs to run to save the kid from falling out of the tree on that day). That's a big part of the movie's success, I think, as it allows for constant new developments as opposed to getting a pretty rigid day "right". It also allows the deaths in the third act to have more weight, as Tree is closer to getting it right and thus runs the risk of letting someone die permanently in order to keep herself from inching closer to death by letting herself die again in order to save them.

Unfortunately this results in one of the movies' few blunders, in which a major subplot is introduced too late into the proceedings, severely crippling its ability to look like anything but a big red herring. Seems there is a mass murderer in the hospital that Tree ends up at a few times, and for a bit she believes he is in fact the masked killer who is after her. But since the story was so hastily introduced, no intelligent audience member could possibly believe that this guy might be the killer, as it would be too much of a cheat and writers will know better by now than to pull a Friday the 13th (or I Know What You Did Last Summer) and make the killer in this whodunit someone we hadn't even really met. No, without spoiling anything I can say that the killer's identity is a satisfying one, and it's a shame they couldn't introduce this red herring character earlier/more gracefully so that we might actually buy into the idea for a while. In fact I pegged one character as the killer fairly early on (what can I say, I'm really in tune with these kinds of movies) and the introduction of this generic villain did absolutely nothing to change my original theory, which is a clear sign that it's not really working as intended. Then again, I suppose some of the teenagers in the audience who aren't even aware of the existence of things like Prom Night and Night School, let alone seen them, would be able to spot these "tells" as well as seasoned slasher fans, so maybe it worked like gangbusters on them.

Tree also utilizes a Sherlock Holmes-ian level of deduction on a few occasions, which seems not so much like a character trait but merely the writer wanting to move things along and having no better way of doing it. Luckily, such bumps in the road are instantly paved over by Rothe, as well as Israel Broussard as Carter, the owner of the dorm room that she wakes up in every day with little awareness of who he is at first. Seems she got super hammered on the never-seen previous day and he ended up taking her back to his room, but nothing sexual happened - he's a nice guy who let her stay in his bed while he slept in his roommate's. By the 3rd or 4th day she realizes he's a good guy and tells him about her predicament, but of course he can't remember anything once the reset button occurs. It's through their relationship that you can really see her grow as a person, as she goes from yelling at him and telling him that he isn't allowed to tell anyone that she was there to warmly welcoming him in front of her sorority sisters after six or seven cycles (and of course, he is reset every day and barely knows her beforehand, so none of her behavior seems out of character to him as she always gets a blank slate to start the day from). Lots of slasher films (hell, horror films in general) end up pairing off the Final Girl with the male survivor, but it's rare that you actually see their romance blossom in a believable fashion - it's usually just "well we're both alive so let's kiss" as opposed to the natural progression of two people getting to know each other. How often do you get to say a slasher film is also kind of adorably sweet?

But fear not - it passes the most important test of a slasher (for me anyway), which is simply "Would you want an action figure of the killer?" The answer is yes, I very much would - the school mascot mask (some kind of man baby?) is a perfect fit for this goofy horror blend. And yes, "goofy" is what I'm going with; I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a "horror comedy", as it's dealing with some grim material and rarely opts for jokes or sight gags that might make you laugh out loud, but there's an underlying breeziness and even a few weird moments that make it more than just a teen slasher with a twist. If anything I'd kind of liken it to Princess Bride, of all things, in that it manages to satisfy fans of a number of genres at once (horror, romance, sci-fi of sorts, and coming of age drama) without ever leaning too far in one direction. The few hiccups are of no real consequence in the long run, and I suspect Tree will be a favorite Final Girl among the younger generation the same way old farts like me embrace Ginny from F13 Part 2 and Nancy from Nightmare on Elm Street: proactive and smart, but not so mousy that girls wouldn't want to be just like them (I mean, I love Laurie Strode, but who is like "Yes! I want to be the one all my friends use so they can have fun!"). It's also another win for Chris Landon, who directed the last decent Paranormal Activity movie (The Marked Ones) and the uneven but better than its reputation Scout's Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, which also offered a surprisingly winning "the hero has to mature" story in the middle of horror carnage. Here's hoping he sticks around in the genre, but I pray neither he or anyone else messes things up with "Happier Death Day" or whatever.

What say you?


  1. 100% we're getting a VOD sequel in a year. The concept is way too good to pass up.

  2. This movie won me over. I was all set not to like it, even though the reviews were okay. It was a very nice surprise.

  3. I had a ton of fun watching it, some of it falls apart if you think a little, but loads of fun.
    I saw it with two teenagers who are not generally horror fans but they loved this one


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