Review – Happy Death Day

Once again, family commitments kept me from catching this one over opening weekend, but I went out of my way on a Monday to try my best to stay current with as many new releases as I can manage.  From the first trailer for Happy Death Day, I thought this Groundhog Day-meets-Final Destination-meets-Scream concept looked fun and the knowledge that famed comic book writer Scott Lobdell wrote the script did nothing to dissuade me from that impression.  I’m always up for new twists on classic ideas and I was also in the mood for some lighter fare, today.  Heavy is hard to do on a Monday, am I right?

Directed by Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), Happy Death Day follows entitled college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe.  And don’t name your kids “Tree”, folks.) on her birthday.  Unfortunately for Tree, her birthday is also the day that she dies, murdered by an unknown assailant.  But, surprise!  After Tree is killed, she wakes up on her birthday again, living through the same sequence of events that she had previously experienced, including another grisly death.  After deducing that she will continue to live through her birthday until she successfully solves her own murder and survives the day, Tree sets out to determine who is out to kill her . . . and why.

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I know many will balk at the film simply because it appears to rehash a concept that has been used in many manners across various forms of media throughout the decades.  I don’t buy into that, however, as core concepts are reused regularly in all different types of entertainment.  What matters is whether or not anything new is brought to the (birthday or death day) party and if the end result is worth a new take.

Landon and Lobdell don’t try to insult the audience by pretending that the Groundhog Day gimmick has never been done before.  Rather, they embrace it and inject some vitality into the proceedings by sculpting a murder mystery out of the original clay model.  I have always loved a good mystery and Happy Death Day delivers a satisfying whodunit narrative that is exceptionally nimble on its feet.

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I say that due to the fact that the gimmick could have easily been more of a hindrance than a benefit to the story.  Once Tree catches on to what is happening, the pace truly picks up and never looks back.  At this point, the film could have effortlessly devolved into a nonstop parade of repetitive and meaningless death gags, morphing into a predictable and forgettable one-trick pony similar to Saw but without the ethical implications or longstanding mythology.  Thankfully, Landon and Lobdell are prepared for this and, following a supremely amusing montage, they find a way to make the repeated deaths matter again and ensure that the film retains its sense of urgency.  The filmmakers have enough of an understanding of storytelling to recognize that turning the film into a game of Super Mario Brothers in which the player has unlimited lives would be a massive – and lazy – misstep.

In addition to being more than competently structured, the script also offers up everything one would want out of a film called Happy Death Day.  There are plenty of scares and horror (toned down for the PG-13 rating) but there is also a healthy dose of surprisingly effective humor.  Bringing a cornucopia of life and energy to the proceedings is star Jessica Rothe.  As Tree, Rothe displays a vast range of emotions from horror and terror to desperation to resignation to good-humored acceptance to coldheartedness as well as its direct antithesis in genuine warmth.  Admittedly, Tree’s character arc is pretty standard and predictable, but Rothe is having so much fun in the part and exudes such a vast amount of charisma that it doesn’t even matter.  There are also subtle shifts in her day-to-day choices – both big and small – that communicate a shift in her personality and exhibit growth in the more nuanced ways that many genre films often overlook.

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The whole film is truly about the journey and not the destination.  The viewer might think they know how it’s all going to end, and maybe they’ll be right.  But they won’t be able to predict the events – events that vary from jocular to dreadful – that will get them there.  Yes, the basic premise has been done numerous times.  But the jokes, the narrative twists, the character moments, and all of the other little details that Happy Death Day has to offer are refreshingly original.  The goal of this film is a singular one: have fun.  And this film is the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies since Atomic Blonde.  If the viewer meets the film where it exists by ceasing to take themselves seriously – just as the film refuses to take itself seriously – then it will be tough not to have a blast at Happy Death Day.

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