Happy Death Day isn’t a film that suffers from an identity crisis. Its filmmakers know exactly what it is and more importantly what it isn’t to make a clever and funny thriller.
Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on her birthday in a stranger’s bed with no memory of what happened the night before. After surviving her hangover, Tree is ready to party with her sorority sisters until she encounters a masked man who kills her. Waking up and initially thinking it was just a nightmare, Tree soon realizes she’s reliving the same day only to get killed over and over.
Obviously, the film was inspired by Groundhog Day, which screenwriter Scott Lobdell is smart enough to acknowledge. But just as influential is the slew of 90s era horror films like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc. with their proactive protagonists who aren’t such hapless victims.
Tree has an almost super power of remembering each death to avoid getting killed the same manner. Credit that to Lobdell’s experience as the preeminent writer of the X-Men in their 90s heyday.
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Rothe, who played one of Emma Stone’s roommates/song and dance mates in La La Land, makes the most of her spotlight opportunity. Initially watching Tree repeatedly getting killed is cinematic justice. She’s a mean girl through and through and nasty to everyone from her way too patient roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), the kindly stranger Carter (Israel Broussard, The Bling Ring) and her father.
As she starts taking account of her actions and treatment of others, Tree evolves into a more likable heroine, whose resiliency in battling her assailant starts to empower her. Tree’s learning curve isn’t too long thankfully and she quickly starts acting to track down her killer. Rothe sells the transformation well from selfish, privileged terror to a character I was rooting to have a happy ending. Broussard makes for a charming potential love interest while Rachel Matthews is very funny as Danielle, the witchy head of the sorority.
The trailers were a bit overzealous in showcasing too many of the deaths, but Lobdell’s script throws in some good twists as the mystery unfolds. Tree wronged enough people that there’s an extensive list of candidates. One of the best sequences in the film is a funny bit where Tree starts eliminating potential suspects. It’s fun seeing how random actions throw off the course of events that get Tree killed. Video game fans might find the film reminiscent of the fantastic Until Dawn, which similarly featured a butterfly effect play mechanic.
Director Christopher Landon (Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) clearly has an affection for 90s horror. He doesn’t spend the entire movie focusing on jump scares. Landon wants the audience in on the fun and lets them see the attacker slowly creep up on Tree in most scenarios. Landon even nails the tricky fake out ending in a satisfying manner.
If you’re looking for a terrifying horror/thriller, It will keep you up for many nights. But for a vintage 90s era scare, Happy Death Day will leave a smile on your face.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures