Review: HAPPY DEATH DAY
The slasher is dead. How many times have you read that? As of the writing of this article, it is almost the longest drought of Friday the 13th’s, what was once the most consistently produced horror movie of all time. A critically panned A Nightmare on Elm Street and commercially disappointing Scream 4 have all led to this question, and it’s unfortunately not one without merit. Blumhouse and Christopher B. Landon has soundly fanned out the flames of that fire and instead have helped reignite one of horror’s darlings.
As far as a premise goes, it doesn’t get easier: it’s Groundhog’s Day as a slasher. At it’s core, that’s really all that Happy Death Day is. Tree wakes up hungover and dejected in a dorm room on her birthday. The audience is quickly aware of who Tree is in the college experience. She’s pretty, bored, and just a little more mean than sarcastic. We follow her through her day and are introduced to the major players of the story: nice guy Carter, sorority queen bee Danielle, the socially opposite roommate Lori. Tree is on her way to her own surprise birthday party when she is stalked and murdered by someone wearing a baby mask, the mascot of the college. Then, she wakes up and it all starts over. Tree falls into a vicious cycle of murder and mayhem as she tries to discover just who her killer is.
The film is a blast. Once the first kill occurs, it hits the ground running and never looks back. Landon wrote and directed the movie and has a long history with Blumhouse, also having penned almost all of the Paranormal Activity movies, as well as directing Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Landon has proven that he has a deft hand when it comes to horror comedy with his genre entry Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse but it’s become abundantly clear with Happy Death Day that Landon has found his voice and is not only comfortable with it but is becoming an expert at the craft. While full of laugh out loud moments, Landon cleverly gets the audience to invest in the lead and manages to flip the character her on her head, changing her from annoyingly unlikable to the likable underdog. Using the story mechanics to his favor, Landon geniusly has us rooting to see Tree die in fun and inventive ways while slowly building our hope for her victory. Landon also has a firm grasp of the world that he has created. While he live the same day over and over again, we see the same journey being made and just before it becomes repetitive, he takes us off the beaten path and starts to really push the limitations of an otherwise most self contained environment. Make no mistakes, Landon is using Groundhog’s Day as a blueprint here, but he has more than enough gusto to make it a different type of experience than the Bill Murray classic. It helps that Toby Oliver does some magic with the camera and is able to present some truly magnificent transitions with the deaths.
The cast helps make Happy Death Day as fun as it is. Israel Broussard plays Carter, the unflappable nice guy, and is as genuine as he can be. Rachel Matthews has a fun turn as this world’s “plastic” and is one of the main contributors of the various laughs you’ll have along the way. The true star though is Jessica Rothe, who plays leading lady Tree. Rothe has a firm grasp of exactly how to transform her character. Everything from facial reactions to line delivery will have the audience following wherever they’re being lead. Whether she wants you to hate her for being a callous fake shell of a person or rooting for her while showcasing vulnerability and strength simultaneously, she sells the character in every direction she leans.
What makes Happy Death Day so great is that it never tries to be anything that it’s not. It knows it’s a slasher comedy so it delivers in full form on both fronts. We get the classic jump scare and tension filled cat-and-mouse moments of a classic slasher, along with the ridiculously dressed killer, but it also doesn’t lose sight of it’s levity.
When Happy Death Day was announced, it was described as Groundhog’s Day meets Scream. Those are two well respected cinematic heavy hitters, so that’s a bit like Babe Ruth calling his homer. You may scoff, a flutter of an excited heartbeat thinking that it just may be true, and then the final product is presented and suddenly it’s a special moment. Christopher B. Landon has managed to call his proverbial homer. Happy Death Day is an inventive, violently smart movie that will renew your love for slashers.