Happy Death Day – Film Review

In the way that the recent Tom Cruise crime thriller, American Made, had fun with the Universal logo, something similar occurs with the new teenage slasher, Happy Death Day; those huge letters keep turning around the Earth, then returning to the beginning, only to try again, then again, then again. As long as audiences know the premise to the oncoming horror, they should recognize that opening as a pretty good joke.

Like most slashers, there are several deaths in Happy Death Day. If we count the ways, it includes death by stabbing, by hacking, by hanging, by shattered bong glass, and by explosion, just to name the few that immediately spring to mind. There are more. But the thing is, there’s only the one victim. It’s Groundhog Day, but as a sick, black joke. Tree Gelbman (Jessica Roth) keeps waking up on the same day, at the same time, and experiencing the same events, until by the evening, she meets an untimely violent death at the hands of someone in a mask. She’s having a really bad day, and it won’t stop, not until she works out who among everyone she knows is the one in the mask doing the kill.

During the first twenty minutes, Tree experiences her birthday at college without knowing how it will end. First, there’s the dorm room in which she wakes after a drunken night of partying. She has no clue how she got there, and she’s flat out rude to the nice young guy, Carter (Israel Broussard) who gave her a place to crash. She’s impolite to a student on campus trying to collect signatures to help prevent global warming. She dismisses the guy who once dated her, insults him, and now she won’t return his texts. “Who takes their first date to Subway?” she asks, adding, “It’s not like you have the foot long.” And that’s just for starters.

Then there’s the catty remarks to fellow sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews) once she drags herself back to her own place, not to mention the rudeness to her long-suffering roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) who goes out of her way to make Tree a candle-lit birthday cupcake, only to have it thrown immediately into the trash. “Too many carbs,” Tree states. There’s no doubt, Tree is the mean girl on campus, and she’s growing on no one.  In the movie world of teenage slasher flicks, if anyone deserves to get it, it’s definitely Tree. She even ignores well-meaning birthday calls from her dad, for crying out loud.

But out of those she either ignores or insults, who among them is the one in the mask with the really big knife? That’s what Tree has to find out after she keeps waking up, back in that same dorm room, day after day, experiencing the same events, meeting the same people along the way, until it happens again. And no matter what precautions she takes, what different direction she tries to make the day go, she’ll eventually be killed in one inventive way or another.

But with each day, with determination, a little detective work, not to mention a change of heart against those whom she regularly insults – “I’m not a good person,” she will later admit – plus an unselfish act that makes all the difference, she’ll find out. But there are red herrings along the way and a couple of false endings. There’s even a fade out suggesting it’s all done, but slow down. If you’re the kind that exits the theatre as soon as you can, just to avoid the crowd before the end credits roll, not so fast, Turbo; there’s more, and you don’t want to miss it.

Happy Death Day is unexpectedly good fun. Seriously, who knew that a teenage PG-13 slasher with such a generic title and a cast of young unknowns in a plot that makes Punxsutawney Phil spring immediately to mind could end up being so out-of-the-blue entertaining? But it is, and it works. And it works for at least four solid reasons.

First, there’s invention. When Tree barricades herself in her room, determined to keep the outside world and the killer at bay, she can’t find the TV remote. Then the channels change on their own, and she suddenly realizes – she’s barricaded herself in the room with someone who has more than the volume control in their hands. Then there’s humor. When Tree, now in her redemption stage, treats people nicely, there are a couple of big laughs. Next is the absence of too much blood. Happy Death Day could have have gone all out as a gore-fest, but it doesn’t, and that’s a good thing; it would have ruined the film’s underlining humorous tone and made the mistake of taking it over the top. And finally, there’s its leading lady.

You’re probably not familiar with the name, Jessica Rothe. She’s done some TV, including an episode of Blue Bloods and Gossip Girl. Plus, she was one of Emma Stone’s three girlfriends in La La Land, the one in the green dress who went out for a night on the town with the girls. But it’s likely you don’t remember. But in Happy Death Day you won’t forget. Single-handedly, she carries the film from beginning to end, and unlike most of its ilk, with everything from cattiness, to warm humor, to outright fear, to a kick-ass heroine, she elevates the teenage slasher to an unanticipated, surprisingly diverting level. It’s a plum role; this is Rothe’s chance to be seen, and she’s run with it. With her attractive good looks, she’s a younger Blake Lively, but not so wholesome – less passive, more energy.

And to top it off, the film even references Groundhog Day when nice guy Carter equates what’s happening to Tree with Bill Murray’s character. He asks her if she’s ever seen the Pennsylvania-bound comedy. She hasn’t. She hasn’t even heard of it. Just think, if she had, she might have realized what was happening to her sooner than she does and saved herself the pain of so many deaths. Don’t these kids in the movies ever go to the movies?

MPAA Rating:  PG-13     Length:  96 Minutes    Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

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