Happy Death Day
A delightfully tongue-in-cheek Groundhog Day horror from Blumhouse, which gave the project the greenlight a decade after its former studio abandoned it. Director Christopher Landon (writer of Disturbia and no less than four Paranormal Activitys) ensures his mysterious masked murderer on campus & repeat is glossy, upbeat, self-aware and full of vim, making it the natural inheritor of Scream’s post-modern mantle, right down to the manufacturer of the murder’s mask.
The picture’s greatest asset, though, is Jessica Rothe, whose comic touch is absolute perfection, and who essays Tree Gelbman’s transformation, Bill Murray-like, from superficial bitch to empathetic soul with effortless charm. Landon (uncredited) rewrote Scott Lobdell’s screenplay, but structurally, one wonders if Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis shouldn’t get a credit (which they kind of do; the movie’s penultimate scene asks “How do you sleep at night? You’ve never seen Groundhog Day?”)
We have the thawing of the initially standoffish lead character, refusal to accept her situation transforming into stark realisation, her romance with someone she barely gives the time of day first time round, and a montage of her going about helping people she was formerly dismissive towards. Of course, this is also true of Edge of Tomorrow to a degree, so one might simply argue it all comes with the subgenre.
One might also reasonably suggest Happy Death Day diverges significantly in where it ends up, since it requires Tree to kill her murderer in order to release herself from the loop, not the most life-affirming of solutions. It’s also less easy to pin down the rules of Tree’s stir-and-repeat, and since she only goes through the experience eleven times, rather than Murray’s thousands, there’s a sense at times that that Langdon and Lobdell have brushed over some of the salient points in favour of the highest impact hits.
We never find out if Tree’s day would have reset anyway, had she successfully avoided being murdered, and her methods of attempting to avoid such an outcome aren’t entirely convincing (just what is she doing all day, besides nursing a hangover?)
In contrast to most of these loop tales, there’s a ticking clock of sorts applied, the signs of major trauma her body exhibits when she gets a check-up (“Technically, you should be dead”); we aren’t informed if her waking on the nineteenth resolves this issue, so one assumes so (but, the sequel…)
There’s also a very horror movie disinclination to follow logical procedure, except when it suits; a very funny sequence sees Tree pulled over by a cop and fail in her efforts to end up in jail, so as to avoid any further violent encounters (which may suggest the rules are that she simply can’t escape the killer, no matter what countermeasures she takes, until she IDs her. But if so, it would have been fun to see some of the absurd lengths she goes to – hop aboard a transatlantic flight?)
Later, when she disarms a police officer and shoots dead the serial killer he’s guarding, there are apparently no repercussions that would detain her for the rest of the night, and she’s allowed to go home and eat a poison cupcake (likewise, her elaborate preceding plan, to right wrongs including visiting her estranged father, somehow doesn’t include checking how a firearm works).
I’ve seen some commenters suggest the identity of the killer was very obvious; while my first thought on seeing the binned cupcake early on was the it was poisoned, I’d argue the picture does a largely commendable job throwing red herrings to distract us (I note too that, in the rough drafts of the screenplay, Charles Aitken’s Doctor Butler was also in on it, and that a cut final ending had Butler’s wife, disguised as a nurse, kill Tree after Tree killed Lori, which seems positively De Palma-ish). The conveniently located serial killer (Rob Mello) is fairly blatant, but it isn’t as if the movie’s sole function is as a whodunnit.
Carter: I don’t think you should be taking that many. I mean, you could die.
Tree: If only it were that easy.
There’s strong support from Israel Broussard as geeky Carter – the right sort of geek, clearly, as he has posters of They Live!, Back to the Future and Repo Man on his wall – whom Tree develops affection for, and Rachel Matthews as sorority queen bee Danielle. Everyone’s a good fit for their roles, though.
Langdon propels the picture along punchily and confidently, ensuring the campus encounters are replete with the wit and attention to social strata expected of the high school/college genre (at its best) and that the switches into slasher antics (PG-13 style) don’t miss a beat; one of the best murders comes quite quickly in the repeat scenario, as the killer repeatedly stabs Danielle’s boyfriend, whom Tree is also seeing on the not-so-sly, while Tree is on the phone in the foreground, all the while the scene timed to deafening techno.
In the end, while I’ve quibbled that Landon might have imbued Happy Death Day with that crucial extra finesse, the picture’s considerable plus points far outweigh its deficits, most particular Rother’s star-making turn and the guilelessness with which it encapsulates the romantic aspiration of John Hughes at his best (right down to a lead who’s a wee bit too old for the age she’s playing). And anyway, it very much looks as if Happy Death Day 2 U will be diving straight into the whys and wherefores of the original’s scenario, in Rothe’s words, Back to the Future Part II-style. I can’t wait (and don’t have long to).