(Rating: PG-13 – Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller – Director: Christopher Landon – Writer: Scott Lobdell – Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine)
Cocky and beautiful college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is living a normal happy life. She wakes up, goes to class, celebrates her birthday…gets brutally murdered. Ya know, the usual. But instead of that being the end for Tree, it is only the beginning as she is forced to relive that horrific day on repeat until…make that IF…she is able to figure who killed her so she can prevent her own death.
The script of Happy Death Day is light and punchy. Though it is played it a bit more straight, HDD is a lineal cousin of the criminally underrated FOX television series Scream Queens, which consistently managed to juggle tension and mystery with snappy dialogue and raunchy humor. Most films similar to Happy Death Day would choose to be unflinchingly serious and grim, however, the HDD creative team capably balances laughs with tension to create an inventive and enjoyable pastiche of scares and grins.
A huge key to this equation is Jessica Rothe. Rothe, 30, who at first blush brings to mind Blake Lively in both appearance and demeanor, quickly reveals a plucky charisma that allows her performance to be vulnerable and relatable. Rothe, who was last seen on screen in the 2016 Best Picture Nominee La La Land, is particularly effective in this role.
While writer Scott Lobdell chose (wisely so) to focus the story on Tree’s mission to identify her killer, one element I have always found unsettling about the Bill Murray vehicle Groundhog Day, from where the plot device of repeating one’s day is borrowed, is the potential terror found in the concept of “repetition.” That dreary drudgery that one experiences from the daily grind of 9 to 5 office or factory shift work. Routine can become a familiar and crushing monster. That might be an interesting facet to explore if there is a sequel. (And a $26.5 million opening weekend off a $5 million budget will probably spawn a sequel or two.)
One thing that bothered me while I was screening the film is that it is never concretely explained how Tree is trapped in this 24-hour loop. The why is loosely addressed but not the how. Rather kismetly, as I am writing this I am listening to Episode 124 of The Canon film podcast. Writer/director/producer Roxanne Benjamin is the guest on this particular episode. As she and host Amy Nicholson discuss Dario Argento’s Suspiria, the topic surfaces of the tendency of modern filmmakers to overexplain their films. And while it must be stipulated that most time things go unexplained by virtue of lazy movie makers, Benjamin posits that there is certainly something to be said for leaving things a bit mysterious or uncertain. She and Nicholson point out that so many good films have been ruined by an exposition-flooded third act. And I can’t argue that. Happy Death Day would unquestionably have suffered from a protracted explanation, as charm would have been traded for a hokey info dump.
I think the “touch” that director Christopher Landon and editor Gregory Plotkin exhibited in the construction of the film can’t be overstated enough. Beyond not falling into the trap of barraging the audience with a never-ending salvo of cheap jump scares, they successfully juggle comedic elements and a refreshingly endearing romantic subplot. They do this while skating along the line of the proverbial “fourth wall,” all while never actually crossing that barrier. I can’t imagine that it’s easy to collage elements of Scream, Clueless and It’s a Wonderful Life without it resulting in complete and utter disaster. Toss in the fact that certain scenes were reimagined upwards of seven, eight and nine times based on where in the narrative they fell, and I think it’s really kinda cool that Landon and Plotkin were able to take all these components and successfully sorted them into a cohesive and entertaining film.
Happy Death Day is, more than anything else, a fun night at the movies. Frankly, it is better than it probably should be. Geared to a sub-25-year-old audience, Christopher Landon has taken familiar ingredients, slightly torked them, and reassembled them in the recognized, yet unexpected, framework of a horror genre picture. Strong casting and a brisk script have been stitched together with an infectious youthful energy to produce the most unexpected hit of the 2017 Halloween season. This one is best to be experienced in a theater setting. Go check it out and have fun.
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