Happy Death Day chronicles a scenario in which a selfish and badly behaved student is forced to relive her birthday over and over again à la Before I Fall. The difference is this is horror, which means instead of simply endlessly reliving a painful day our girl has to face down a masked killer out for her blood until she can figure out a way to end the loop. To top it all off, she’s dealing with a mighty bad hangover. Best birthday ever, right?
For a film with so much potential for repetitiveness and redundancy, Happy Death Day does a great job at keeping us on our toes by letting the day play out differently each time with new and creative kills each night. While the killer isn’t terribly frightening due to overexposure, having to go through the nightmare of knowing Tree (Jessica Rothe) will be attacked at some point time and time again is enough thrill to last the short runtime.
Horror-comedy for me is hit or miss, but I’m fond of it here. It’s not overbearing and tends to arise out of nowhere, meaning unexpected humour and horrifying deaths go hand in hand. The way writer Scott Lobdell’s script takes its shots at timely moments reminds me of some of Final Destination‘s more ridiculous exits. Although there is an edge to them the jokes stay at the side-lines so as not to nullify the seriousness of Tree’s situation. And it is serious: each time she relives her death day she becomes weaker.
Throughout her experience, Tree grows (no pun intended), her development isn’t as pronounced as the likes of Edge of Tomorrow, for example, but it is there. There’s a stretch toward the end where we take a break from the crazy psychopathic murder stuff, and Tree does reflect on the type of person she is. I would’ve preferred this to be spread evenly throughout instead of pushed on to a singular scene but what follows after was so much fun.
With a new outlook she becomes proactive and energised. She goes through the motions with a new bounce in her step, and we’re treated to a great sequence of her catching things before they happen and doing liberating things like walking around campus naked. In Groundhog Day-style movies these set pieces usually take up so much runtime that it can get boring but Happy Death Day focuses on the larger narrative at hand and compacts those lighter moments into a neater and more digestible package instead of slowly waddling us through it step by step until we can call exactly what the protagonist walking through their laid-out path is going to do.
Visually it’s quite interesting. It’s well-lit, has some inspired direction and makes use of tried and true horror tricks that are dynamic and engaging. Dutch angles as we sprint through hospital hallways, a power cut lasting just long enough for someone to make a move, and mirrors are in fact not a girl’s best friend. The event and time that ends up with Tree getting killed continually changes so we are always on the lookout for something entering the frame ready to strike, and the means of it happening stay imaginative in terms of how that something enters.
I’m a little upset that I predicted the killer within the first five minutes, but I think director Christopher Landon’s slasher is well enough constructed that it does have you questioning a lot of the surrounding characters so it’s not a total game changer. I can see myself enjoying a rewatch knowing what is what now. That being said, it does fall apart in the end in the way of motivation for the evil hell-bent parties. Scream 2 reveal, anyone?
But running out of steam at the final stretch isn’t enough to dull the sparkle of an original take on an old sub-genre.