Christopher B. Landon
Jessica Rothe - Tree Gelbman
Israel Broussard - Carter Davis
Ruby Modine - Lori Spengler
Rachel Matthews - Danielle Bouseman
Charles Aitken - Gregory
Rob Mello - Joseph Tombs
Genre - Horror/Comedy/Slasher
Running Time - 96 Minutes
Unlikable Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) treats the people around her like dirt, even though her friends and sorority sisters are treating her with a surprise birthday party. However on the night of her party, Tree’s murdered by a killer wearing the mask of the school mascot. Normally that would be the end, but Tree continues to wake up over and over - dying in different ways by the same killer. Frustrated by these chain of events, Tree figures out that she needs to find out who her killer is and stop them before the deja vu ends up weakening her and ending her life for good.
HAPPY DEATH DAY is a film that snuck up on me a couple of months ago. It’s inspired GROUNDHOG DAY storytelling peaked my interest, as I really enjoy that comedy. Add a slasher twist to it? You know I’m there, regardless of it’s PG-13 rating. And with Blumhouse’s recent track record with horror films [GET OUT, THE PURGE, THE VISIT], I knew HAPPY DEATH DAY would be at least somewhat decent. I just didn’t expect how fun it would end up being, even if it won’t reinvent the wheel.
Like I mentioned already, HAPPY DEATH DAY is pretty much the horror remake of GROUNDHOG DAY. And if you’ve watched GROUNDHOG DAY, you pretty much seen HAPPY DEATH DAY. The lead character, again, is very unlikable at the start of the film. Tree is a sorority member who is pretty much a bitch to those around her. She looks down on people. She criticizes others. She sleeps around because she’s beautiful. She’s distant with her father. She’s extremely self-centered, leading to someone wanting to murder her. And like GROUNDHOG DAY, Tree begins to change into a better person as she experiences the same day multiple times, realizing that she must change in order for her to see the next day. She also must figure out her killer before the deja vu ends up killing her for good. It’s a simple premise that we have seen before, but done in a horror twist that surprisingly works in its benefit. Watching Tree approach the same day in various ways is entertaining, as it reveals a lot about herself as well as the people around her. The secrets she finds out are sometimes hilarious, making the deja vu aspect worthwhile for comedic purposes.
I also think the GROUNDHOG DAY aspect of HAPPY DEATH DAY is a joke on the slasher sub-genre itself. Usually when you watch a slasher film, you pretty much seen them all but in a different variety. Slashers have always been accused of being repetitive, or being the same film but with a different killer. The fact that Tree lives out multiple slasher scenarios with a killer who uses different methods of murdering her each time seems to be a commentary on how many critics view slashers, and probably horror in general. I like how subtly it makes fun of the world it’s in, making HAPPY DEATH DAY a fun watch.
I also think the mystery of the killer works well for the most part. I figured it out pretty much halfway through the film, but other people in the theater I was in were shocked by the person’s identity. I give the film credit for having many red herrings, some of them actually quite convincing enough. I think the mystery is actually pretty satisfying and its conclusion is pretty great. It helps the ride getting there is well written and charming, making us care about what we’re watching.
I will say that HAPPY DEATH DAY is not a scary film, nor does it have any sort of gore that slasher films are known for. It relies on jump scares at times and it may rely on the gimmick a bit too much at times. It’s also nothing that hasn’t been seen or done before, which may turn off fans who are looking for something new with their horror. But if you can get past the PG-13 rating and lack of scares and blood, you’ll have a good time.
The direction by Christopher B. Landon is confident. Even though HAPPY DEATH DAY is a horror film, and directs those slasher moments really well, Landon also knows how to balance comedy within that horror. He uses the gimmick almost to perfection, using clever transitions that start with Tree’s murder leading into her waking up in bed all over again to restart her day. The film also looks nice to look at and it’s paced extremely well. And each day that Tree experiences plays out the same, but feel different each time, which is a testament to a good director.
The acting is what makes HAPPY DEATH DAY a joy to watch. The standout is really lead actress Jessica Rothe, who makes for a charismatic, engaging actress. She has great comedic timing, understands when her character needs to be serious or funny, and she’s not bad to look at either. The fact that she starts off so unlikable and manages to be extremely sympathetic and charming by the end of the film is a testament to Rothe understanding her character arc. I expect we’ll see more of her in movies because she carries the film without much of a sweat. I thought the other standout is Israel Broussard as Carter, the potential love interest for Tree. He played the awkward, quirky male lead very well and shared comfortable chemistry with Rothe. I thought their love story arc was very cute and I enjoyed watching them grow closer throughout the film. The other supporting actors all play their roles well and add to the appeal of HAPPY DEATH DAY.
THE FINAL HOWL
HAPPY DEATH DAY surprised me with its charm and cute approach to the GROUNDHOG DAY deja-vu premise. While more of a comedy and romance film with slasher elements filtered in to move the story along, HAPPY DEATH DAY would rather have fun with its premise than play it up for scares or suspense. This film doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but everything about it is solid - especially Jessica Rothe’s lead performance. The PG-13 rating and lack of “serious horror” may turn some people off, but HAPPY DEATH DAY makes an effort to be just a good, fun time. And it definitely succeeds in doing that over and over and over again…