Christopher B. Landon
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
Happy Death Day
rom the get-go is it obvious that last year’s Happy Death Day is determined to be something of a modern shake-up of the classic Scream (1996-2011) formula. Back in ‘96, when the horror genre was mostly confined to gratuitous slasher sequels and direct-to-video bypasses, Wes Craven memorable renewed the genre by stirring in a couple teaspoons of metafiction into a mixture comprised of blood, guts, and dark smarm.
Sure all the ingredients from, say, the Friday the 13th movies (1980-2009), would remain. But this time around the nubile teenage characters would be hyper-aware of what was going on around them. They’d sardonically make references to all the horror movies their current situation resembled, and they’d be able to point out that saying “I’ll be right back” would likely get you killed. As would having sex, announcing you’d be splitting up into groups to investigate a potential crime scene, or trying to give sass to the mad slasher once you’ve had the misfortune of meeting him or her face to face.
Happy Death Day similarly attempts to renew the horror genre with this sort of winking intelligence. But here, general subversion is of higher interest than outright self-referentiality. (When your leading heroine doesn’t even know who Bill Murray is, what’s the point of making pop culture quips anyway?)
The film is certainly part of the done-to-death killer-on-the-loose slasher milieu. Yet it redeems itself by twisting the arms of all the various clichés we’ve grown accustomed to over the decades. The central protagonist is not a chaste final girl but rather a virago-in-the-making Rose McGowan might’ve excelled at playing back in the 1990s. The storyline doesn’t merely consist of unmasking a killer, either: it gussies it up with a sprinkling of canny science fiction.
Although the final product’s a great deal less involving than we’d like it to be – the trailers, after all, do suggest that it’s a disciple of the movies made during that period when Craven went meta on us – it’s still an astute horror comedy a cut above its middle-of-the-road peers. It’s also made octaves more enjoyable by the newcomer Jessica Rothe, who makes for the craftiest horror girl since You’re Next’s (2011) Sharni Vinson. In Happy Death Day, she stars as Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, a snide college student we first meet on the morning of her birthday. From the moment she opens her sleepy, racooned eyes, though, we can tell this special day might be one she’s going to want to forget.
She wakes up hungover in the bed of a classmate (Israel Broussard), is late to her first class, and has to immediately deal with the scorn of her sorority sisters, who’re all indulging in gossip pertaining to what she did the night before. We also discover, on top of all the temporary things she’s dealing with, that she’s having an affair with her teacher (a well-groomed Charles Aitken), and that she’s not really on speaking terms with her father.
Tree is not a nice person. She’s quick to lunge toward someone’s throat even when they’re trying to be considerate, and she’s so self-involved that she can’t help but drown out any sort of conversation that doesn’t orbit around her well-being. But before we can decide that we’ve had enough of her, she’s murdered by a mad slasher donning a Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)-style baby mask.
Then, against the odds, she wakes up as if it were all a dream. Only there’s a catch: with time apparently on her side, she keeps awakening on the morning of her birthday after seemingly getting murdered, all lethal wounds dissolved but all events of the day erased and meant to be redone. Consider this Groundhog Day (1993) with a bloodier conceit: instead of seeing a sourpuss get a million chances to redefine himself as a “good” man, we get a snarky blonde given a multitude of opportunities to unmask the person who wishes to off her. Who the perpetrator could be, though, is not easily guessable, even with all the red herrings the film’s writer, Scott Lobdell, throws our way.
What’s put forth is outlandish but indefatigably fun. Look at Happy Death Day as the horror equivalent of bubblegum pop: not exactly as great as it thinks it is, yet still easy to digest and enjoy. I cannot disprove that the film is more clever than it is laugh-out-loud funny (it’s clearly determined to be more of a farce than a straight-up creepshow), but that goes a long way here. That’s probably because Rothe is such a charmer, or because we’re genuinely curious to see how Tree’s going to escape each death scenario. We’re also keen on finding out who exactly the killer is. (The answer, however, is ever so slightly disappointing.) Craven and primary Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson might’ve made the material soar a little more had it popped up in their brains some two decades ago. But Lobdell and director Christopher B. Landon get the job done well enough to leave us wanting more. B