Friday, October 13, 2017

'Happy Death Day' Is John Hughes With A Side Of Stabbing

This review originally appeared on

Happy Death Day does not hide its obvious debt to the film Groundhog Day — in fact a character comments on the similarities between the seemingly cursed heroine's plight and the plot of the 1993 film. But to call Happy Death Day the horror version of Groundhog Day is to miss the horror that's pretty inherent in any story about someone having to live the same day over and over.

In the new horror comedy from director Christopher B. Landon, whose previous work in the genre centered on the Paranormal Activity franchise, college student Teresa "Tree" Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) doesn't get to wander around a bucolic small town for eternity, but instead must spend each day knowing it will end with her brutal death.

That day begins with Tree waking up in the dorm room of nerdy but definitely cute Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) after an assumed one night stand. But Tree is an icy sorority girl who doesn't have time for pleasantries like learning his name, and is fast in taking that walk of shame back to her sorority house, also home to head mean girl Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and sweet roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who presents Tree with a candle-topped cupcake because, of course, it's Tree's death day AND her birthday.

As the day progresses, it becomes clear Tree is not a nice person, and there are probably several people who wouldn't mind seeing her dead. The first time she meets that fate is while on her way to a frat party, as she takes a solo walk through a creepy tunnel. Because this is a horror movie, Tree does the dumb thing and proceeds down that tunnel even after finding a creepy music box playing the Happy Birthday song and seeing an even creepier person in a giant baby mask (the college's mascot is a baby) at the end of the tunnel.

Slasher movies are predicated on such tropes. You always have to have characters doing dumb things. They're also filled with varied, elaborate murder scenarios played out for each victim. And of course, a good slasher movie usually features bad girls who get killed and a good "final girl" who lives. Happy Death Day is clever because it wraps all of that into a single victim. Tree is the bad girl who must learn from her frequent dumb mistakes to avoid death AND become the good girl who saves herself from the inevitably unmasked killer.

The time loop gives Tree the opportunity to figure out just who is trying to kill her, so she can stop it, but unlike Groundhog Day, she can't take advantage of this endless loop to also learn piano or French, because her brutal deaths take their toll, leaving her weaker with each repeated day. Which might explain why the only fun she's shown having is a day she decides to spend walking around campus naked...which? To each their own I guess. But I might have gone with something like seeing if I could literally eat myself to death at a buffet.

Happy Death Day is better when it's a comedy (and a romantic one, at that) than when it's going for the horror, as it's never truly terrifying, and Jessica Rothe is more entertaining when she's making us laugh than when she's screaming. Her scenes with Israel Broussard grow from awkward to genuinely sweet, and the fate of their romance becomes more vital than figuring out who the killer is, especially after multiple red herrings are tossed our way. Ultimately, Happy Death Day earns its homages to Vertigo, Psycho, and Sixteen Candles. It's John Hughes with a side of stabbing.

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