IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Self-centered, rude and promiscuous college student Tree Gelbman wakes up on Monday the 18th, her birthday, in the bed of her classmate Carter Davis after a drunken night out. That evening, while going to a party, she’s murdered by a hooded figure wearing a mask of the campus mascot. But then Tree wakes up the next morning back in Carter’s bed. She relives the day but avoids the tunnel, instead returning to her sorority house for a surprise party. However she’s still killed by the same masked person. Tree realises she’s in a time loop and is advised by Carter to take advantage of the loop in order to figure out who her killer is….
I suppose the amazing thing is that Groundhog Day hasn’t been reworked as a slasher-style horror film before now [unless you count Triangle] while Happy Death Day was actually intended to go into production back in 2007 with Megan Fox to star [thank god this didn’t happen]. Since then we’ve had Edge Of Tomorrow which possibly also informed this flick if its script was rewritten between 2007 and 2017. The premise of somebody who has to relive the same day which always ends with death is full of promise, and this promise is partly – though only partly – fulfilled by Happy Death Day, which is a film I really didn’t think would be any good but which I felt I had to see as I write for a website called Horror Cult Films and hadn’t reviewed a new horror for a while. Maybe it’s because I’ve sat through some pretty dire teen-aimed horror films of late which I don’t need to mention and this lowered my expectation considerably. And there was one brilliantly handled scene around 20 minutes in that really made me think I was watching quite something, involving a lad dancing away to the mini disco in his room, the heroine getting bored, another guy who comes in, and of course the killer, a scene which managed the difficult job of being frightening but also pretty funny at the same time.
Sadly the film never gets quite as good again, and it certainly does have a lot of problems, perhaps the two most important ones being the often cack handed storytelling and the fact that it’s only occasionally actually frightening. While a few moments involving the killer do provide a jolt, they wear very fine and there’s no real feeling of a fear of death despite the subject matter. I’ll also tell you right now before I get more into the story that the deaths are generally tame, uninteresting affairs. I get that the film was made for a ‘PG-13’ rating, but they could have still come up with some more original stuff [in my opinion kill scenes in slasher movies don’t necessarily have to be bloody, but it really helps if they’re creative], and it also means that there’s little sense of anticipation for moments which ought to be some of the highlights of the film. As some measure of compensation, we get some of those jump scares where a loud musical sting does much of the work, and some fake scares which sometimes do come off, while something else I will also say right now is that the killer’s baby-like mask, designed by Tony Gardner who was responsible for the Ghostface one in the Scream films [and this film really does go for a Scream vibe in places and sometimes gets there], and possibly inspired by the one in Four Flies In Grey Velvet, is an unsettling sight, at least at first. Unfortunately it’s overused and as often with these things the law of diminishing returns applies.
Outside of the horror, the overall approach is light, something that should be immediately apparent by the way the Universal logo stops and restarts several times, but this is generally pulled off quite well even though my personal tastes would have perhaps preferred a darker, crueller, more morbid take on the idea, and I certainly wished that they’d used the downbeat ending that they originally shot rather than the one they have. But if you’re like me then you may find it quite refreshing that the heroine really is a bit of a b****. She’s dismissive and condescending to everyone from her fellow classmates to a former fling, ignores her father when he rings, and even chucks away a birthday cupcake given to her by her roommate Lori right in front of her. She’s also having an affair with her professor Gregory Butler. I’ll say right here that Jessica Rothe, who I only knew previously from her small role in La-La Land, is very good in the role of Tree and navigates the character’s changes very well even when the screenplay doesn’t always do so. She suggests a considerable undercurrent of sadness and insecurity even when she’s being the cow you love to hate, and towards the end turns into a fine woman in peril despite some of these scenes not quite having the edge that they should.
As Tree walks about, she encounters a bunch of things like a sprinkler going off and someone wanting a signature on a petition that the filmmakers can easily repeat in their riff on the classic Bill Murray movie. They also obviously but quite neatly introduce their suspects on Bree’s first day. The snarky rival sorority girl. The studious roommate. The patient sister. The teacher Bree is sleeping with. His wife. For goodness sake I even suspected the young Asian girl on headphones who hangs around outside the house Bree shares with some others. Bree keeps on being murdered even if she tries to avoid it, so sets out to find the killer who seems to be someone who knows her birthday. There’s a great montage scene, despite the god-awful pop song being played over it, showing Bree doing some investigation including staking out a house with combat gear and surveillance equipment, as well as beginning to enjoy herself, even doing her familiar daily walk naked as some kind of empowerment. And possibly – just possibly – Bree might become a better person. Not all of this aspect is pulled off that well, but I can’t not like a film whose simple unashamed message is just “be nice”. And the romantic side of things, Israel Broussard being instantly likeable as Carter, progresses quite smoothly though it’s impossible to tell what he sees in Tree at times!
Things do go downhill a bit in the third act though I think you’d have to be a pretty adept mystery solver to guess the killer which seemed well disguised to me. Unfortunately, the film wastes far too much time on a blatantly obvious red herring and the reasoning behind the killer’s hatred for the heroine is just pathetic – unless this was intended to be funny too and screenwriter Scott Lobdell was sending things up, which is possible. It’s hard to tell at times. There can’t help but be a few occasions where the film appears to have been made for idiots, like the editing in of a flashback to the death of a character despite the fact that this person died around a minute previously, and the way the interesting idea of Tree retaining the injuries she suffered during every murder totally disappears around half way through. Like many films of this nature, one gets the impression that the script or the actual movie have been drastically edited down to create a speedily paced as experience as possible but losing some sense in the process.
Still, director Christopher Landon, co-writer of some of the Paranormal Activity films and helmer of the so-so Scout’s Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, delivers a reasonably nice looking picture and piles on the Dutch angles and Bear McCreary’s surprisingly [for a modern film] upfront score during the chase sequences. Happy Death Day could have been better but it also could have been a whole lot worse. Horror fans shouldn’t expect to be scared much, and may also feel like the film piles on the slushy stuff too much towards the end, but by then I thought it had just about earned it. You certainly won’t want to watch it over and over again, but I don’t think you’ll feel that you’ve wasted part of your life in going to see it. I would also say that it’s probably a pretty good date movie for teenagers who would probably add an extra star.