Happy Death Day

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/17/17 09:13:18

"A silly slasher that knows exactly what it's doing."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There's an old-man part of me that is inclined to grumble about how "Happy Death Day" never really spends a whole lot of time on the whys of its time-loop plot, chalking it up to kids raised on video games just taking the idea of multiple lives for granted (at least, until realizing that the people actually making the movie are a generation older and grew up playing the same Atari 2600s I did). That's the part of this particular movie the audience has to just go with, but when you put that aside, there's still a fun scary movie underneath, one that arguably hides its clever construction well enough to come off as enjoyably dumb fun.

The girl stuck in the loop is Teresa "Tree" Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a sorority brat who wakes up the morning of her birthday in the dorm room - dorm room! - of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), though she can't remember much of the previous night, although both Carter and sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews) make it clear she was even more drunkenly out of hand than usual, flirting with Danielle's boyfriend Nick (Blaine Kern III). She blows off her father's phone calls, tells a guy she went on one date with (Caleb Spillyards) to buzz off, and tosses the cupcake her fellow pre-med roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) baked for her in the trash. All this makes her late for class, but she's sleeping with teacher Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken), an MD who also practices at the local hospital. She's still got time for a couple more displays of random bitchiness before being attacked by a guy wearing the mask of her college's creepy baby mascot on the way to a party and winding up dead. Fortunately for her, the day resets, although it will take a few iterations for her to realize it's not just a really scary form of deja vu.

Happy Death Day has done well enough at the box office that, if a sequel isn't already being planned, it will be hard to resist, but such a movie will have difficulty tapping into what makes this one work: Writer Scott Lobdell seems to spot how a lot of slasher movies are, at their heart, whodunits where the potential victims must figure out who is behind the mask, but how this kind of doesn't work that well because you need a motive for the murderer to kill a lot of people, which makes for an unsatisfying murder mystery ("he's nuts" only goes so far and "they all deserve it" isn't much better). Letting "Babyface" knock Tree off again and again gives the audience the fun multiple kills of a slasher movie while keeping the mystery angle fairly focused on Tree.

There's an element of compromise to this, but it's canny choices. Certain horror-movie fans are not going to love that the filmmakers terms to favor a quick cut from Tree about to die to the reset, even if director Christopher Landon and editor Gregory Plotkin do an impressive job of keeping this trick from losing effectiveness in the repetition, while also making the violence seem larger-than-life without a whole lot of on-screen blood. As a mystery, the film often plays as Tree attacking the problem with brute force, although Landon and company spend enough of the early going playing up just about everything that might prove important later on, but making sure that there's enough of it that a fair amount can be red herrings. The final resolution actually winds up being impressively satisfying, allowing for the audience playing along to be both rewarded and satisfied and almost, but not quite, having a self-aware wink at the genre tropes.

Jessica Rothe gets to personify how the film is able to play it big and boisterous while still having a real sense of danger, appearing in just about every scene. She spends the first run through the day giving the audience Tree at her most superficial, but the arrogance in play shows how Rothe is going to be able to push Tree in two different directions at once, as offended entitlement shifts to horror and the pushy confidence becomes an often playful enthusiasm in how she plays detective. There's just enough time for her to get a better attitude without necessarily changing her habits, and Roche does a very nice job of bringing out the best and worst of this character despite her not having time for the same sort of tear down and rebuild Billy Murray had in Groundhog Day.

It's not subtle work, but it is entertaining, bolstered by a cast that by the film's nature doesn't get as much of a chance to vary their performances as Rothe does but still manages to make the characters pop. With an exception or two (it is a murder mystery, and someone's got to be hiding something), everybody is playing a type, but from Israel Broussard (the amiable nerd) to Rob Mello (the serial killer), and Ruby Modine (good-girl roommate) to Rachel Matthews (queen of the queen bees), they fit their slots perfectly and feel like they could still be dropped into a less broadly-played movie and still work. Special credit on that to Charles Aitken as Tree's professor/lover, who nails the seductive charm but also has a layer of slime that glistens when looked at from the proper angle.

Sure, "Happy Death Day" will probably be regarded as kitsch by the time the audience has left the theater; it's maybe got an ending or two too many and doesn't mind being outwardly colorful rather than particularly nuanced. But it's able to be fun and energetic without having to step outside its genre to point out the inherent silliness of the slasher, and it's probably a lot more careful in how its pieces fit together than more realistically grim shockers.

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