Blumhouse Pictures is back with another horror story just in time for the Halloween season, with ‘Happy Death Day’. Teenage girl, Tree (Jessica Rothe) requires the simplicities in life around her college existence and her ever-growing number of friends who adore her. While trying to enjoy her birthday, she soon realizes that this will inevitably be her final one. That is, if she can’t figure out who her killer is. For whatever reason, Tree must relive that day, over and over again, dying in a different way each time to place her closer to the killer. Along the way, she will learn more as well about the way her closest friends view her. Can she solve her own murder and live to see another day? ‘Happy Death Day’ is directed by Christopher Landon, and is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, adult language, some drug material and partial nudity.
To anyone longing for the campy 90’s slasher vibes and mysteries within its plot, look no further. ‘Happy Death Day’ is a film that surprisingly has a few lasting positives to take away from it that lifts it from being one of the more dreadful fall films that I wasn’t looking forward to. I compare it to that timeline because this film feels like it could’ve been lifted from that particular era of filmmaking, combining personality and horror together like the kind of humbling marriage that the genre was destined for. This isn’t a film that will win over many faithful fans like myself who are thirsty for frightening atmospheres and bloody gore to boot, but it will keep the masses entertained for a good old fashioned whodunnit? while treating us to a positive message from within that surprisingly comes from the strangest of places. The film does still suffer from a lot of the same tropes and handicaps that keep it from establishing anything new to the overstuffed Blumhouse Productions catalog, but there was never a point in this 91 minute film where I was ever bored, and that should be commended especially for a plot that doesn’t exactly present anything groundbreakingly original.
This is yet again another example of a character living through the events of one day over and over again, similar to ‘Before I Fall’ or ‘Groundhog Day’, and if you’re looking for a reasoning in explanation for how any of this is possible, you’re surely set to be disappointed. ‘Happy Death Day’ has one of those storylines that requires you to shut your brain off just long enough to ignore some of its gaping problems in execution like logical setup or obviousness in mystery, and keep pushing forward with some light-hearted atmosphere that keeps things fun. It’s also great that once again we have a setting of Louisiana, yet no character speaks with a Southern drawl. I guess the producers or director doesn’t care about those important details of immersion. One thing that I positively took away was that in this film the pain of previous days carry over into Tree’s next attempt. This gives the protagonist urgency despite there being no chance of permanent removal from the story. As for the mystery itself, it was something that I figured out in the opening twenty minutes of the movie, mainly because the comparisons of character height and setting made it easier to weed out the many list of possible culprits that we are engaged into early on in the film. A major spoiler scene for me involved a cop pulling Tree over after she thinks she has escaped the clutches of the killer. If you’re paying attention closely here, you’ll notice something that the killer has that only one person could possibly have gotten. If you figure it out, you will be waiting for the film to catch up, but thankfully the heartfelt resonance of living for each day is one that kind of takes over for the film midway through, treating us to the empathetic side that holds Tree prisoner in repetition.
It’s in that aspect where I feel like the performances of this youthful cast keep the film plugging away at making anything about this memorable. No more finer example of this is made than its main star Jessica Rothe, who sports Tree with the kind of energy and magnetic charm late in the film that totally turns around her character’s likeability. To say that I hated this girl during the first act of the movie, is an understatement. At the beginning of the movie, you almost feel that dread of having to be stuck once again with a character like this, but that helpless element in Rothe’s performance starts to take over early into the second act and introduces us to an actual person who has gone through a lot of suffering long before this day from hell came into her routine. Rothe knows especially how to play up the repetition that coils around her day like an inescapable poison, and we start to see more vulnerability in the way that her other defining traits start to widdle away. Rothe is someone who I will definitely be looking for in future roles, but it’s in her uphill climb of peeling back the layers of an arrogant sorority girl that will always earn her a respectable place in my heart, because without her this film is a complete mess.
Some of the biggest problems that ate away at my surprisingly growing enjoyment of this film is in the very tone that keeps the environment fun, but does eat away at the concepts of what establishes this as a horror film. To me, ‘Happy Death Day’s’ presentation felt a lot like watching an ABC Family show on the same grounds as ‘Pretty Little Liars’. Sure, it’s entertaining and even compelling when it wraps you in its mystery, but it comes up roughly short in the horror element that satisfies us with a condemning payoff. For me, the PG-13 labeling is felt especially tight here, limiting our thirst for blood that kind of should go without saying in this kind of plot. The death scenes themselves thrive mostly on imagination, and if they were able to build the tension of something truly horrendous before that cut to the next day takes place, then we might be able to see something truly devastating in our minds without actually visually witnessing it. The death scenes in set-up aren’t anything that hasn’t been done, so there’s nothing other than the handicap of a rating that explains their absence from the torture that Tree goes through. Certainly the idea is to cater to a wider audience that includes the very teens that will shuffle out the cash to see this movie, but if it comes at the mercy of hindering the impact of said product, wouldn’t it just be better to go with artistic integrity?
To counteract some of the limitations of horror, the film’s presentation is capable enough in carrying the workload between editing and camera work to play soundly into the pleasures of pacing that constantly keep this one moving. The chase scenes, particularly the ones in the hospital, are thankfully given the choice to film in standard instead of handheld. I feel like the merits of this decision gives us the ability to capture more of not just Tree and the antagonist roughing each other up, but also the set pieces in environment that play to everything around them. The editing sticks with quick-cuts that present the rapid fire progression of the next day, and I like that because there’s a tight-rope that the editing team walk during a film like this on when to cut into each death scene. If they cut too early, there won’t be enough indulgence for the audience, but if they cut too late it can give away too much of what is left to imagination. This editing ratio is perfect, and I give much praise to the work of Gregory Plotkin for implementing his stamp of precision.
THE VERDICT – ‘Happy Death Day’ is never really scary, but it is campy enough as a comedy to treat viewers to enough entertaining factors to eat away at the horror limitations by its safe rating. The star making performance of Rothe, as well as its hearty message to live each day like it’s your last is one that comes with great eye-opening value for a film that I originally dismissed as just another cheap Blumhouse offering. It’s a lot like Halloween candy that you get every year; it might not be safe or good for you, but the sweet tooth from within demands that you indulge in it for this time of year.