Dying for a Living
Happy Death Day is directed by Christopher Landon and stars Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, and Ruby Modine.
There's a joke made right at the end of Happy Death Day about the movie Groundhog Day. You don't need any better proof that Christopher Landon is totally aware his film is not at all original, borrowing the time loop concept from the 1993 Bill Murray fantasy comedy and molding it to be the premise of a slasher film. It's natural to be skeptical of a movie that clearly looks to be copying a concept/formula from an earlier, critically-acclaimed movie. How many actions films over the years have tried to imitate the success of Die Hard? But every now and then, there slides along a movie that adapts an older, well-known concept and actually adapts the concept pretty darn well. This goes back to one of the most essential aspects of film-making: it's not the concept that will make or break your film; it's the execution. As Roger Ebert put it, "It's not what a movie is about, but how it's about it."
Happy Death Day follows college student Theresa "Tree" Gelbman, who wakes up in the dorm room of her classmate Carter Davis (Broussard) after a long night of hardcore drinking and partying. It turns out that it's Tree's birthday, but she's in no mood for celebrating: she ignores phone calls from her Dad, she tosses a cupcake given to her by her roommate Lori (Modine), and she continues her ongoing affair with her married professor, Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken). That night, on her way to another party, Tree is ambushed and killed by a figure wearing a mask of the school mascot. Tree then wakes up to find herself again in Carter's bed, and is shocked when the previous day's events repeat themselves. After getting killed a few more times, Tree eventually realizes she is stuck in a time loop, and unless she can find a way to thwart her killer, she will have to keep living the same horrid day over and over again.
In terms of horror, Happy Death Day is kind of light with its jump scares and anything that can be appropriately deemed nightmare fuel. The extent of the movie trying to terrify you is Tree slowly walking down a dark hallway or approaching a corner where the killer might jump out from. With that said, I have a very hard time calling this movie 'scary', because anything and everything is done with a cheeky sense of humor, sort of like if Sam Raimi had made a horror film when he was still wearing diapers. Now, I'm not trying to bash Christopher Landon as childish or anything like that; it's simply that Happy Death Day goes pretty easy on the scares, which is perfectly acceptable, because the movie more than makes up for a lack of serious scares with an abundance of humor and charm.
- This movie would probably have been a catastrophic failure had it not been for a stand-out performance by Jessica Rothe. God damn it, it should be illegal how ridiculously charming that Rothe is as Tree. This is one of the few horror movie characters from the past few years that I can think of that brings the full package: they are charming, they are funny, and they are noticeably developed over the course of the film. Rothe gives it 110% in her performance, perfectly expressing every different emotional state that Landon requires her to be, whether it's being frightened while running from the killer, having a serious sit-down talk with her Dad, or even sport a big smile and act like she doesn't have a care in the world. It's a heavily demanding role that Rothe proves to be more than capable of taking on, and it's the main reason why I would recommend this movie. Whether we can declare Rothe to be the next great "scream queen" is to be determined, but judging from what we see from her here, I am confident that she can at least be one of the top candidates.
- Happy Death Day starts to break down a little in its later scenes, specifically those in which Tree does things that would call the attention of the local authorities, and when we learn who the true killer is. A minor spoiler: Tree kills someone that she believes is the killer, and in the very next scene, she is back in her sorority house celebrating. Don't you think that the police would want to take Tree down to the police station and ask her questions about what happened? Are we supposed to assume that the police questioning Tree already happened, and they decided to let her go? I should mention that we see Tree hold a knife to an officer's throat, but given this officer is never seen again after he runs to go get help, I guess threatening a police officer is a-okay in this movie;'s world. It's a bit of a nitpick, I know, but Tree never getting bogged down with the authorities is a bit lazy on Landon's part.
When we finally learn who the true killer is, the motivation behind why they're killing Tree is pretty weak. I can't go into too much detail because, y'know, hefty spoilers, but it is a bit anticlimactic to watch Tree get repeatedly killed and go through all this trouble, only to find out that her killer wants her dead because.....well, a reason that shouldn't motivate you to kill someone.
You know what though? The lack of logic in some places and the fragile true reasoning for why Tree is being killed hardly has any effect on how entertaining that Happy Death Day is a whole. It's a silly and self-aware slasher film that is best remembered for Jessica Rothe's unbelievably charming performance. It's also an example of how re-using a familiar premise can still equate to a perfectly enjoyable film. The execution is what really matters, and, for the most part, Happy Death Day executes its familiar premise right. One last thing: did I mention that Jessica Rothe is super charming in this movie?
Recommend? Yes. Even though the premise is borrowed from Groundhog Day, it's still worth seeing because of Jessica Rothe's performance.
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