Happy Death Day (2017)

Happy Death DayStarring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews

Directed by Christopher Landon


Happy Death Day is a body-count horror flick, but here’s the twist: it’s always the same body being butchered. With a wink and nod to 1993’s Groundhog Day, college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is having the worst day of her life, over and over again. She gets out of bed on her birthday, only to be murdered before midnight. Her personal “Punxsutawney Phil” is a masked killer who takes her out in various vicious ways, but every morning… Tree wakes up. Eventually she figures out that the only way to stop the cycle is to stop the slayer.

It seems deceptively simple, but this isn’t an easy story to tell. Deftly directed by Christopher Landon, who helmed Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Happy Death Day keeps a lot of plates spinning. First there’s the central horror and mystery plot, then there’s clever comedy, sweet romance, and even some background drama. It all blends together seamlessly, thanks in large part to the likeability of the cast. While Rothe carries the pic – she’s in every scene – she’s bolstered by Israel Broussard as Carter, the slightly nerdy boy who she barely knows but meets every day; Rachel Matthews as Danielle, the Kappa president and resident spoiled brat; and Ruby Modine as Tree’s longsuffering, neglected roommate, Lori.

Rothe does a fantastic job of portraying someone through an arc from self-centered Sorority sister to self-aware “woke” woman who not only has the power to affect her own destiny, but also that of those around her. Tree has some moments of terror typical of a victim in a slasher, but she is mainly a character we believe has the power to face the challenges head-on. She doesn’t always succeed – she dies about a dozen times! – but we want her to.

Tree’s world is brought together in the form of her upscale college, the Greek house where she resides, and a wonderfully creepy “horror hospital” where lots of mayhem ensues. The cinematography by Tony Oliver (Get Out) is slick and shadowy, while the score by Bear McCreary (“The Walking Dead”) brings the suspense elements to a crescendo without overdoing it.

The script is quite clever, thanks in part to Landon’s uncredited rewrites. I’m sure he had a lot of great stuff to go on, but it’s been said the original story didn’t have the elements of romance, and the drama in Tree’s past. Those things are what gives the flick its heart. Hardcore horror-hounds may not like the PG-13 constraints, but the movie does have some edge to it. Of all the genres it encompasses, I will say it’s more of a comedy than anything.

Happy Death Day is one of the best horror-comedies to come out in some time – while it’s not as adult or subversive as, say, Get Out or The Love Witch – it’s a whole lot of fun. No, there’s not a ton of gore, but sometimes we just want a little entertainment; Happy Death Day provides that and more.

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Staci Layne Wilson

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