“I know what is going to happen before it happens.”
It’s quite appropriate that Happy Death Day takes place at the fictional Bayfield University instead of the expected horrors of the standard high school setting. The material is more mature than teeny-bopper house parties while the parents are away, instead opting to explore the first steps of adulthood over the jail cells known as detention or study hall. And even as the film gets increasingly more idiotic from one act to the next, it works because the story is so hyperactive and self-aware, presenting its particular take on the time-loop brand front and center rather than pawning itself off as something more meaningful or valuable. Happy Death Day is the type of old acquaintance you’ll look back on and respect because they had the guts to be themselves when everyone else around than settled for fitting in. It’s the kind of low-level dumb fun that’s smarter than you’d ever expect.
Once you get past her horrendously – or perhaps intentionally evergreen – topiary name, Tree (Jessica Rothe) feels real to anyone who’s lived on a college campus. She’s an egotistical and self-described bitch, and she absolutely knows this to be true about herself, daring to flaunt her faults as the products of sorority prestige rather than acknowledge the trauma of her past. We see this when she breaks the crust from her eyes in Carter’s (Israel Broussard) dorm room. He’s a stranger, she was very drunk the evening prior, Tylenol and water become an antidote. Not a word is to be spoken about their tryst. This is a case of the Monday’s if ever there was one, and it’s even harder for Tree because it’s her birthday. She makes the walk of shame through campus. Is bombarded by her “sisters.” Reminded about the Frat party later that night. She swears that she’ll make it. Then a cherub masked stalker enters the frame on her way there – donning the face of the University’s hilarious mascot “The Bayline Baby” – who violently murders Tree, and then she wakes up on that dreaded twin bed again. And again. On repeat. Hangovers have hardly ever been this cruel.
The Godfather of this repetitive sub-genre is undoubtedly Harold Ramis’ influential and groundbreaking comedy Groundhog Day. It’s had a bit of a revival the past few years. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow ventured into selfless action territory, Ry Russo-Young’s terribly underrated Before I Fall crept its way into straight up existential drama, and now director Christopher Landon has made a film that’s decidedly less a mindless mess of bloodied horror and more of a revealing mystery tale. Happy Death Day comes nowhere close to the level of Wes Craven’s Scream nor some of its lesser inspirations (I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty). The greatest strength of this film is far different than that of its predecessors. Those 90’s black comedies aimed to subvert genre whereas Landon plus his cast and crew set out to make a well-meaning mockery of the genre altogether. I’m still baffled that it successfully managed to blend stupidity and smarts and mystery into a storyline as dependent on reruns as this devoted case of déjà vu.
Happy Death Day really is just a dumb movie that’s been made in a slightly intellectual way. And that’s part of the enjoyment factor. We know what his film is about from the onset – that it exists by way of a storytelling gimmick – and we only hope that it has the foresight to dive in headfirst. Boy does it ever. In that regard, Happy Death Day isn’t your typical horror film; this picture is far less concerned with coaxing scares than it is with asking us to help investigate a makeshift police lineup. Like the embodiment of a game of Clue, Happy Death Day leads us along as it eliminates suitable killers, all before it finally finds so-and-so in the room with the murder weapon. When you combine the devotedly acerbic Nancy Drew performance from Jessica Rothe with the script’s sour sense of humor, you get something that’s mixed and poured as a cheap shot but would’ve been better served as a classy drink. However, and either way, it gets the job done. Happy Death Day will make you jump, laugh, scratch your heard, and contemplate the authenticity of your kindness. I want to call this film stupid because it’s pretty damn blockheaded in spurts, but that would require me to ignore its considerable intelligence. Any movie that ties (through obvious dialogue) the innocence of Sixteen Candles with the sheer terror of Halloween is one worth recommending and seeing.
“Consider it collective amnesia.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5