Ever since Groundhog Day, time-loop movies have had to deal with the comparison and indeed when it was advertised, Happy Death Day looked like Groundhog Day: Slasher Style, and while that did turn out to be true, it also got some good reviews calling it an entertaining horror/comedy. With the sequel getting an official release date a few days ago, I decided to kick off this year’s October viewings with this flick and see if it was as fun as advertised.
The film follows Theresa ‘Tree’ Gelbman as she wakes up on Monday the 18th, the morning of her birthday, in a strange dorm room belonging to Carter Davis, a classmate she barely knows and spent the night before drinking herself into oblivion with. Throughout the rest of the day, she insults her dorm-mates, ignores her father’s calls, continues her ongoing affair with her married professor, and generally acts like a total bitch until that night when she’s ambushed by a masked assailant and killed. Only to wake up on Monday the 18th in a strange dorm room belonging to Carter Davis.
After going through the exact same day again and getting killed again, Tree realizes she’s stuck in a time-loop. She manages to convince Carter on one loop about what’s happening to her who suggests that since she has unlimited lives, she can look into who wants to kill her in every loop until she finds the killer. Tree takes to the idea and starts investigating whilst also having a little fun with the no-consequence reset of her life, but after one-loop has her waking up in pain, Tree finds out that the damage is carried over from each loop, so her infinite lives are in fact quite limited.
There are certain aspects of the plot that don’t work out as well as the film wants. Such as the carried damage which gives a nice time-limit, but ultimately gets dropped fairly quickly, and the end-reveal of the real killer and their motivations isn’t that great. But on the whole this is a fairly fun story, it benefits from knowing exactly what it is and rolling with it. The time-loop is set-up relatively quickly and the end-goal of finding the killer drives the plot in the background, but the film itself is focused on Tree slowly bettering herself as she’s given chance after chance to change who she is as a person. It’s simple but effective, obviously the Groundhog Day comparisons are there and the film even name-drops it towards the end, but that doesn’t take away from just the enjoyment I had with this.
While Tree is the central focus, the film does a decent job at giving the supporting characters enough to work with. I think Carter should’ve joined the main plot a little earlier, but Israel Broussard is charming enough and he gives Carter this genuine nice-ness to him. He’s a decent guy and once he’s on-board, you can tell he’s not judging Tree for talking crazy and in fact is the only one in the film you know she can trust. Hopefully, they’ll be more of him in the sequel since he’s fully aware of what happened to Tree and we can jump right in. Outside of Carter, the supporting cast included Rachel Matthews as Queen Bee Bitch Danielle who managed to be a cliché without becoming a full parody and was all the funnier for it. Ruby Modine as Lori, Tree’s long-suffering roommate who could’ve used some more scenes to further sell their difficult relationship. Charles Aitken as Dr Gregory, Tree’s adulterous professor, not all that important, but a good toxic element for Tree to cut out of her life. And Rob Mello as serial killer John Tombs, creepy and threatening enough, but honestly comes in way too late as a plot point to not feel forced in.
But this is Tree’s picture and honestly she stands out as one of the better horror heroines we’ve had in the modern age. I don’t know where Jessica Rothe came from, but she’s an absolute find, and this is her breakout performance. When we first meet Tree she’s hungover, cranky, and more than a little bitchy, but she’s funny enough not to get on your nerves, but you know you’re not meant to like her at this point. Where Rothe shines is in how quickly she’s able to get you to like her, firstly by just embracing her immortality, and having fun with it. Then you realize that she’s got a limited time-frame and has to look back on just where she went wrong in her life after her mother’s death and her reaction to it. It’s a testament to Rothe’s natural charisma that she’s able to play Tree as bitchy, confident, funny, depressed, reflective, and a bad-ass in the space of 90+ minutes. While having all parts feel natural to the character, you honestly just grow to like her, and it’s difficult not to root for Tree when…
Oh fuck was that deliberate? Goddamn it.
Director Christopher B. Landon does a solid job balancing the film’s many genres, but to be a little critical for a moment, I think the film is missing a trick not going for the R-Rating. Not that it needed to be, but I think given the concept of the film having the R-Rating would’ve allowed them to play around a little more and go for some shock humor with Tree’s increasingly violent deaths. It works as PG-13, but I think it would’ve been better with an R rating.
With that being said of course, Landon is still able to make the film work as it is, it balances more towards comedy than horror, but still utilities the genre for some pitch-black moments of humor surrounding Tree’s many, many deaths. Especially in the first half of the film when things are still quite easy-going. The horror moments are slight, but there’s still some good scare moments whenever the killer – in a freaky Baby Face Mask – charges onscreen ready to rip Tree apart. It’s scary enough to play into the genre, but not so scary that you forgot how entertaining the rest of the film is.
And honestly it is a very entertaining film, most of that comes from Tree and her few moments of relaxation. Be it taking a few risks because tomorrow won’t come, so who the hell cares when she finally gets her morning down to a tee and rolls with the repeating events. More than that though the film is borderline self-aware, it never seeks to answer exactly how or why this is happening to Tree. While it’s been confirmed this will be answered in the sequel, it’s honestly not important and in fact the way this first film is set-up, it’s all the better for not having an explanation. It makes the film go by that much faster without getting bogged down with back-story and it’s the simplicity that works in its favor.
I figured going in that I would enjoy Happy Death Day and I’m happy to see that was true. Sometimes you just need something fun and that’s exactly what this is, it takes a familiar concept of time-loops, and builds it around a slasher film to great success. Jessica Rothe is absolutely spell-binding as Tree in a role that should absolutely open doors for her, at the very least as a new scream queen, and despite the PG-13 rating, Landon is able to make the film, funny, scary and most of all enjoyable. It’s a film that just works and definitely worth checking out to ease yourself into the spirit of the season.
I am giving Happy Death Day a 3.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!