The premise of Happy Death Day intrigued me – I’d heard it described as Groundhog Day meets Scream, and while that description is reasonably apt, it also does an injustice to the film, which manages to be better than the ‘high concept’ pitch makes it sound. This is partly due to the production and direction team – produced by Jason Blum (of horror juggernaut Blumhouse- who really know how to put out and market professionally made low to medium budget horror movies), and directed by Christopher B. Landon, the director of several ‘Paranormal Activity’ movies (which I haven’t seen, as the first PA movie left me cold) and ‘Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocolypse’, which I greatly enjoyed.
But on with HDD. It begins with Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) waking up in the dorm room of nerdy fellow student Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) after a heavy night of drinking and then undertaking the ‘walk of shame’ back to her sorority house. As the day goes on, we learn several things about Tree – she’s not a very nice person, she drinks, she fools around with a friend’s boyfriend, she’s having an affair with a married professor at her university, she’s rude, arrogant and selfish. It’s also her birthday, and she doesn’t really want anyone to know about it. That evening, on the way to a party, she is brutally murdered by a hoodie wearing figure in a sinister ‘baby-face’ mask.
She then wakes in Carter’s dorm room again, and the day begins once more.
This movie has several strengths; it presents an interesting line-up of supporting characters who all might want Tree dead, which makes it almost like an Agatha Christie-esque murder-mystery. It layers on the scares as effectively as a PG-13 horror can, including a section featuring a wonderfully disturbing musical ornament, and another with a sinister birthday card. The masked figure is both creepy and, amusingly, slightly incompetent (which is where the Scream comparisons come in, I think – also the baby-face mask was created by the same person who made Scream’s Ghostface mask). The script is witty, the action well paced. Jessica Rothe is also a huge strength of the film, convincingly portraying a variety of emotions; fear, shock, understanding and wry amusement at her situation. I particularly enjoyed the way Tree tries to proactively solve her own murder before it happens, while at the same time realising the kind of person she is and resolving to change. In fact, the arc of Tree’s character evolving even as the world stays forever the same is one of the most satisfying aspects of the film. There is also a clever bit of plotting that brings in a bit more tension – meaning Tree doesn’t have unlimited attempts to deal with her recurring murder issue.
In terms of weaknesses – there are a few plot-holes (although some things that appear to be plot-holes are explained away by the end of the film), some of the twists are reasonably easy to figure out if you’re paying attention (although there a few clever swerves the script takes to continuously make you uncertain) and due to its PG-13 rating it’s a bit bloodless.
All in all, though, it’s a satisfying, entertaining romp that doesn’t outstay its welcome and showcases a young star that could, based on the success of this film, definitely break through into the mainstream.
(Up Next: I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House.)