In Happy Death Day, Groundhog Day lives again as wickedly funny slasher flick: review
Happy Death Day
Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Caleb Spillyards, Rob Mello and Jason Bayle. Directed by Christopher Landon. Opens Friday at GTA Theatres. 96 minutes. 14A
The clever script for Happy Death Day solves one of the slasher genre’s core contradictions: how do you stage a series of crazy, creepy killings yet have your hero survive until the final faceoff? Usually that means a procession of underdeveloped friends and acquaintances, but here, self-centred sorority sister Tree Gelbman is not just the first victim, she’s the second, third, fourth and beyond, as she is resurrected morning after morning to live the same day over again.
The one-day-infinite-times plot structure is, of course, deeply associated with Groundhog Day, and was also used to underappreciated effect in Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow. What makes Death Day feel so fresh is that this is all played with a whopper of a wink, pulled off by the considerable comedic talents of star Jessica Rothe, who successfully juggles the horror/comedy mash-up.
Take the way she races across campus in last night’s sparkling silver tank top and black leggings: her face is all terror even as she struggles to shuffle with dignity in heels. Rothe’s biggest screen credit thus far is as one of Emma Stone’s three roommates in La La Land, but Death Day should rightly announce her Hollywood breakthrough.
Though depicting a sorority sister as a pretty and petty self-involved elitist isn’t exactly the most novel take on Greek life, her horrible personality is what makes it so fun to watch Tree get serially murdered. If she wasn’t just the worst, could the film really do a musical montage of Tree getting murdered set to the tune of Demi Lovato’s “Confident”?
It’s commendable for a film built on repetition that the only moments which drag are when the film takes itself too seriously. Stripped of its humour, the film can quickly become the kind of schlocky scare-by-numbers B-movie it so brilliantly sends up.
Of course, repeating the same story again and again is the horror genre’s specialty and there’s certainly plenty of franchise potential in Happy Death Day: The cheap plastic baby mask worn by the killer, with its echoes of vintage children’s Halloween costumes, is not only effectively creepy but an obvious marketing opportunity. A music box — topped with porcelain figurines of children blowing out birthday candles — which plays a tinkling, dying version of “Happy Birthday” seems like the kind of talisman that could link a franchise long after Rothe has hung up her Death Day heels.
Like the 1993 Bill Murray comedy, there isn’t much explanation as to what makes Tree immune to the march of time. It is more acceptable to gloss over this in comedy than in horror, where supernatural occurrences generally occur within the context of a broader mythology, even if it’s just some nonsense about a witch who burned down a convent where the sisters had banned birthdays.
But considering the film is such a successful balance of comedy and horror, expecting it to also explain its own nonsense plot feels a little greedy. This is a movie called Happy Death Day after all.