Happy Death Day (2017) Directed by Christopher Landon. Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard and Ruby Modine. A college student who is murdered on her birthday returns to relive the day over and over until she uncovers clues to her killer’s identity.
Mild spoilers follow.
On the morning of her birthday, hungover sorority sister Tree Gelbman wakes up in the dorm room of a stranger. He is nice guy Carter, who tells her that she drunkenly left a party with him the night before and crashed in his bed. Tree gets dressed and heads across Bayridge University campus to her sorority house. She encounters an environmentalist student looking for petition signatures, a drunk frat pledge who collapses and a couple getting blasted by lawn sprinklers. At the house, her Kappa sister reminds her of a sorority meeting later that day and her sweet roomie Lori presents Tree with a birthday cupcake.
“Too many carbs” Tree bluntly responds and tosses the pastry into the trash.
She’s kind of a bee-yotch.
During the meeting, the sisters belittle a girl with a full lunch tray for overeating, and Carter shows up to return a bracelet Tree left in his room. Eventually, day turns to night, and Tree heads out to a gathering on campus. En route, she runs into a group of students wearing masks of Bayridge’s incredibly creepy football mascot, a cherubic baby.
Tree discovers a tiny music box with ceramic figures playing a tune in a tunnel beneath a walkway. A baby masked stalker appears and stabs her to death. For most victims in a slasher movie, this is where the story ends.
But not for Tree.
She immediately wakes up again in Carter’s bed and restarts her birthday, making the very wise decision to not enter the spooky tunnel. This time she makes it to her destination and discovers a surprise party thrown by her friends and half the university’s population. At a loss to explain the strange morning, she nevertheless believes she’s safe from harm. Until the deadly baby pops up again and cuts Tree down.
After about four deaths and returns, she confides in Carter and slowly begins to investigate her masked antagonist in hopes of defeating him and returning to her regularly scheduled life. It turns out to be a very complicated process. With each reset, she grows weaker from enduring horrific murder trauma, and she must also explain to Carter all over again what’s going on.
He loses all knowledge of the events of the day each time Tree dies because he hasn’t lived it with her yet.
Trapped in the same repeating loop of a day, she begins to examine her own shallow behavior and make decisions that change the outcome of situations we’ve already seen occur. She stands up for the sorority sister with the tray of food, saves the drunken pledge from falling, signs up to save the environment, warns the couple about the sprinkler and treats Carter with respect and then affection. She also strolls through campus completely nude and enjoys ingesting carbs.
There are a couple of interesting wrinkles along the way, such as when a potential lover for Tree turns up wearing the baby mask to show his football pride and winds up tangling with the identically dressed killer.
Why does every guy on campus wear black pants and a hoodie?
And at one point, Carter is killed saving Tree and the heroine commits suicide to “reset” Carter back to the morning of her birthday, saving his life by ending her own. And that’s cool, in an “Edge Of Tomorrow” kinda way, but “Happy Death Day” has a few serious issues.
Part of what holds the film back is that the bloodless and swift deaths fail to register. We need to see something far more visceral to get a better sense of the violent dividing line between Tree’s murderous nights and groggy mornings waking up in Carter’s dorm room.
If you want an audience to become more emotionally invested in Tree and make her superpower seem even more wondrous, show the poor girl getting her skull split with an axe. Or maybe on campus gardeners are doing some work nearby and we might witness our girl get shoved into a woodchipper.
I mean, her freaking NAME is Tree! She’s practically begging to be attacked with tree trimming tools.
How often do you have a situation where the Final Girl is also the first to die, only to rise again to confront the killer and lose?
As a concept, her time travel immortality offers endless nutty avenues to exploit. “Happy Death Day,” unfortunately, doesn’t go wandering down these paths, preferring to play it safe both in terms of violence and examining how far Tree’s predicament can be pushed.They got as far as taking the “Groundhog Day”/”Edge Of Tomorrow” repeating day premise and building a horror script around it and then didn’t go any further.
The red herring in a slasher movie is a classic mystery trope.
The weird janitor, the toothless redneck, the harmless hobo who seems to pop up at every murder scene. “Happy Death Day” gives us a crazed serial killer of young women imprisoned at a university hospital, and one look at this sinister dude makes it clear that he has nothing to do with any of this. So much time and energy is devoted to this obvious false lead that it detrimentally overwhelms the reveal of the ACTUAL killer.
When the genuine Big Bad steps out of the shadows with a completely arbitrary motive, I shrugged. Imagine if the crime thriller “The Usual Suspects” ended with the reveal that crippled Verbal Kint was NOT Keyser Soze? Turns out it was some guy we’ve never seen before eating a scone in a Starbucks. Audiences would be scratching their heads, wondering why they had just spent the last 90 minutes learning about Verbal.
We are given fifteen minutes focusing on the red herring, and then five minutes on the villain we should be following.
It’s narratively essential to give the killer in a whodunit their big moment.
In the finale of 1981’s “Happy Birthday To Me,” the heroine wakes up from being drugged to find herself seated at a table with all of her dead and rotting friends in birthday party regalia. The killer, who looks exactly like the Final Girl, emerges with a birthday cake and then removes her rubbery face mask to reveal her true identity. She describes in a Crazy Plan Monologue why she slaughtered six people before the inevitable fight with her nemesis. Now that’s giving a villain their moment. The deaths drive the story, so we need a satisfying answer as to who is committing them and why. Plus, Crazy Plan Monologues are usually entertaining. Usually. It’s only a couple of explanatory lines in “Happy Death Day,” and it’s really only motivation appropriate for a slap in the face. You’ll be underwhelmed by the big reveal, though it is followed by an oddly humorous fight to the death involving pastry items and a
You’ll be underwhelmed by the big reveal, though it is followed by an oddly humorous fight to the death involving pastry items and a well-placed chandelier.
What should feel like a climax comes off as an afterthought, though the final scene after the action is well-played.
Having said that, one of the film’s strengths is actress Jessica Rothe as Tree. Since we’re with her the entire running time, it’s a good thing she’s funny and charismatic. Her reactions and comic timing help carry “Happy Death Day” through some of the rougher spots, like the final act.
I give Landon and writer Scott Lobdell credit for marrying “Groundhog Day” to a slasher formula. I just wish they had pushed the idea into unexpected directions. Narratively they ended up a lot like Tree herself, stuck in one repetitive place.