HAPPY DEATH DAY. Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard. Directed by Christopher B. Landon. 96 minutes. Rated M (Horror themes, violence, sexual references and coarse language).
Film producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions is the man behind two of this year’s biggest horror hits, ‘Split’ and ‘Get Out’. Blum has clearly struck a chord with his prevailing strategy, developing low cost genre films that are easily summed up with a snappy, virally-marketable description. ‘Split’, for instance, was a kidnap thriller where the kidnapper had multiple personalities, while ‘Get Out’ was a ‘Meet the Parents’ comedy set-up that devolved into a ‘Stepford Wives’-esque exploration of race. ‘Happy Death Day’ will likely be Blum’s third success story for 2017, and one can see the pitch meeting where Blum and Co. bought the film: “It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ except there’s a slasher chasing our sorority girl heroine.” They may have cut the check in the room.
A cleverly glitching and repeating Universal Pictures logo in the film’s opening seconds heralds the time looping plot device. College student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on her birthday confused and supremely hungover. She’s in a dorm room belonging to Carter (Israel Broussard, appealing), a guy she met at a bar the previous night. She hightails it back to her sorority house before it’s off to class; also in the mix are a quick visit to see her married professor (Charles Aitken), with whom she is having an affair, a sorority meeting led by sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews, hilariously cattish) to discuss their annual fundraiser, and a litany of missed calls from her father, who Tree has avoided since her mother died. Walking alone to a party at a nearby fraternity, Tree is attacked and murdered by a masked assailant, shrouded in a mask of their creepy school mascot. Whoever thought the “Bayfield Baby” was an acceptable idea for a college mascot should be fired immediately.
Tree wakes up terrified, still in Carter’s bed – was it all a nightmare? She leaves, and initially dismisses the repeating patterns and events as extreme déjà vu. She is understandably still frightened, so locks herself in her room rather than going to the party that night. When the baby-faced killer strikes again, only for Tree to find herself in Carter’s bed once more, the reality of Tree’s existential nightmare sets in – she is caught in a time loop on the day of her own murder. These early scenes have an overwhelming sense of peril, building up cleverly to the brutal but bloodless catharsis of Tree’s murder. Director Christopher B. Landon has knack for staging these sequences in a viscerally affecting way, even if he can’t settle on a unified tone for the rest of the film, which veers between laughs and jump scares in a more disjointed manner than other horror comedies have achieved.
After convincing Carter one morning of her predicament, he tells her that she should solve her own murder, and she draws up a long list of suspects, most of whom the audience has been introduced to in the first few renditions of the day. This triggers a realisation in Tree that perhaps she hasn’t quite lived her life in the most admirable way. Jessica Rothe does a good job selling her character – she starts the film as quite acerbic and unlikeable, but she certainly grows on the viewer throughout, particularly as her growing vulnerability triggers a few important life lessons. What’s most interesting about the script by Scott Lobdell is its transformation of an archetypal slasher film victim, the mean sorority girl, into a plucky and charismatic lead character. The way that it treats her fellow Kappa Pi Alpha girls is less developed (most are stereotypes), but this helps reinforce that this film is Tree’s through and through. It wears its influences proudly on its sleeve throughout, with a tongue-in-cheek reference to time-loop masterpiece ‘Groundhog Day’, and enough meta-slasher-horror commentary to evoke Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ franchise. However, the real innovation remains not its combination of inspirations but its character work through Tree.
There’s a sharp, almost surreal, turn in the second act, as Tree begins her hunt for the killer. While it feels breezy and entertaining in the moment, the ensuing montage, cut to upbeat electronic music, seems at odds with the remaining two-thirds, leading to a kind of mental whiplash that makes itself more known to the viewer as the third act wears on. And wear on it does! ‘Happy Death Day’ has a couple of endings, the first of which will almost certainly leave the viewer feeling robbed of a logical conclusion. The next denouement is utterly ridiculous and over the top, but in a movie where logic allows the lead to be killed time and time again, it makes a lot more sense than the first.
‘Happy Death Day’ was clearly made to attract an audience that likes their horror M rated (unlike last month’s gory hit ‘It’) and fun. It should certainly achieve that. It’s also probably better than it needs to be to achieve its lowly goals, thanks largely to a clever script and a spirited lead performance. All in all, it’s not a film that I would object to perhaps reliving a few more times.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 12.