Happy Death Day

2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Jessica Rothe | directed by Christopher Landon | 1hr 36mins |

2017 Halloween Horrorfest #8

Studio Pitch: Groundhog Day in the spirit of Scream.

In 1993 Harold Rhamis came up with an original idea, you might even call it The Last Original Idea, when they released Groundhog Day and invented the time-loop film. In it a single day repeats itself infinitum for no logical reason for one person, forcing them into a scenario of torment but also great power as they gain the ability to anticipate everything around them through learned repetition. This concept has also been worked over essentially in time travel films like Timecrimes or Triangle. In the Groundhog Day version of this power fantasy, Bill Murray used it to become a better person, in Edge of Tomorrow Tom Cruise used it to get a leg up on an otherwise overbearing, undefeatable alien force and in Happy Death Day, a college co-ed uses it to solve the mystery of her own death. I’m increasingly hesitant to say that these movies – and the great Supernatural episode “Mystery Spot” – are “ripe-offs” of Groundhog Day; even when they name-check Rhamis’ original. This is the kind of high concept novel idea that is going to be explored, twisted and re-invented for years to come like a Shakespeare story now that the genie is out of the bottle.

Happy Death Day is the slasher movie version of the Time Loop film. Put together by Christopher Landon and overseen with the economically efficient hand of producer Jason Blume, whose Blumhouse has specialized in cranking out junky, low-budget, high-concept horror flicks (The Purge). Landon served his time banging out Paranormal Activity sequel scripts until taking the director’s chair with the terribly under-cooked Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse last year. Happy is certainly better than that film and it has a lot more energy, competence and personality than most of the Blumhouse features. In it’s best moments it recalls the wonderful tone the Scream series took, approaching a horror movie as a bubbly fun time instead of dark and oppressive.

The plot, well, the filling inside the Time Loop framework centers around Tree (Jessica Rothe) a sorority girl who wakes up in the boy’s dorm after a night of drinking and juggles said boy, the queen bee of her sorority house, an affair with a professor and ultimately a knife-weilding killer in a baby mask on her birthday, then does it again and again and again until she can find out the identity of the killer and save her life. The story goes through the motions of the Repeating Day Time Loop movie. First the details of the full day are set up, then the confusion of the repeated day and ultimately Tree using her predicament to command the world around her. A lot of the cause-and-effect things that happen here – even the reveal of the killer – just barely seem to hold together. A gust of wind could topple this script over.

And yet, it is a good bit of fun. Landon keeps it light and high velocity and the film’s baby doll killer mask is a unique, effectively creepy creation (though to explain it’s existence the movie dreams up that the college mascot is the fighting “Babies”.). It is all very tightly scripted and wrapped with things that fit in the theme and seem connected even if they might not be – like that it’s both her birthday and the day she dies and he inspirational bumper sticker slogan Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life. There is a backstory where Tree’s late mother shared her birthday and she is has to work through her relationship with her father, whose call she keeps ignoring. And she’s getting weaker with each resurrection putting something of a ticking clock on the proceedings. All of these strands pass in and out of the movie, many of them suggest at some point there was a draft where Happy Death Day established a more elaborate explanation behind all of it. Instead, with Landon and Blume trimming every ounce of fat and lose change, the movie goes for snappiness instead of exposition, ultimately going with the most immediately visceral, but least interesting, possibility.

That the film works at all is because of the the all-in animated performance of Jessica Rothe. Rothe is in, I’m pretty sure, every second of the film (barely edging out Kristen Stewart in 99.9% of Personal Shopper earlier this year). She balances this movie on her head in a physically demanding comic performance of expressive wide-eyed facial expressions, full-body stunts and delivery that doesn’t just match, but shapes and directs the film’s personality and tone. It is surprising how hard the movie doubles down on what a despicable person Tree is in the first act (given the PG-13 rating). In fact, just about everyone in the film from Tree’s professor to the mean girl sorority clique are all horrible people, with the exception of Carter (Israel Broussard) the film’s doe-eyed nice guy geek who gets caught up in the time loop sci-fi drama of it all. That Rothe is able to make the turn so that we don’t hate her halfway through despite all that is an achievement.

Jessica Rothe won’t win an acting award for this because genre movies aren’t respected and because most acting awards go to movies that are already pretty good anyway. Which is my point – it’s very easy to be good in a good movie. A theme to a lot of my film writing here has been that movies usually sink or swim on the production, the script and the director with actors being the least of the things that can go right or wrong with the final product. That’s not the case with Happy Death Day; if Rothe doesn’t commit to this movie the way she does it all falls apart. Landon and Blume owe the actress a debt. Rumor is Megan Fox was originally signed on for the lead here. I can’t even imagine.

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