Cinema Dispatch: Happy Death Day

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Happy Death Day and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures

Directed by Christopher B. Landon

There are very few premises that will get more on board with a film than “like Groundhog’s Day, but…” and honestly I’m not even sure why.  That movie is certainly a phenomenally crafted comedy that I revisit from time to time, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite films of all time.  I guess it really is just how great of an idea that premise really is as I see it as basically THE perfect interpretation of a Bottle Film (it allows limitless possibilities while also having an enormous constraint) and its one of the few ideas that gets me to eagerly start putting together scenarios of what I would do in that situation.  Throw a murder mystery in the middle of it, and you have something that could be not just a GREAT film, but an absolute classic for the genre!  Can this movie POSSIBLY reach the lofty goals that it sets for itself, or will this be a bigger waste of time than Before I Fall?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with Tree (Jessica Rothe) waking up in an unknown dorm room with a guy she doesn’t really know named Carter (Israel Broussard) and heads back to her sorority so she can ignore the fact that today is her birthday.  She ignores calls from her dad (Jason Bayle), brushes off her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) who’s at least making an attempt to make her birthday a little bit nicer, and just goes through her usual routine as if there’s nothing special about today; even going to see the married professor she’s sleeping with (Charles Aitken).  At the end of the day, when she’s heading to her own surprise party, it turns out today is NOT going to be a normal day because someone in a crappy baby mask (the school’s mascot… for some reason) stabs her and she… wakes up in the same dorm room she did that morning.  Same guy, same day, same ignored phone calls from dad.  Oh, and also the same murder.  Clearly she’s doomed to repeat the same day over and over again until she finds out just who it is that’s killing her each night which may not be an easy thing to do considering how many people she manages to piss off on a regular basis, though murder DOES seem to be a bit extreme to be just anyone she knows so she’ll need to narrow down the suspects as each night (and each death) brings her closer to the truth.  Will Tree be able to put an end to this endless cycle of misery and stabbings by unmasking the one person on campus who wants her dead?  Is every day TRULY a repeat of the last, or does something linger every time the clock goes backwards?  Just how many absurd and hilarious ways will Tree have to experience the ice cold hand of death before this is all over!?

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“OH MY GOD!  THEY KILLED TREE!!”     “YOU BASTARDS!!”

I am AMAZED at how great this movie turned out; especially considering how I was burned earlier this year by the aforementioned Before I Fall.  Like… someone took one of the BEST premises you could have for a movie and did something GOOD with it!  Not just good, but freaking GREAT!   There’s an unmistakable charm and delight with which this movie takes its well established premise, but you can also see just how seriously they take it which only adds to how delightfully morbid yet engrossing it is to watch.  It actually CARES about its premise and how it works into solving Tree’s problems.  This is where Before I Fall stumbled (or at least ONE of the places it stumbles) as the premise feels so disconnected from what the movie is actually about which was… I don’t know, reading self-help books?  How to stop bullying people?  Well whatever it was, it was a story that really didn’t even NEED to have this particular premise while Happy Death Day works so well because of it.  Game developer Warren Spector has said that his dream project would be a painstakingly immersive and detailed RPG that would take place entirely within a city block, and I feel that this sort of REPEAT THE SAME DAY UNTIL YOU GET IT RIGHT movies are the cinematic equivalent of the innate appeal that Spector sees in his idea.  At least for me, there’s something engaging about seeing how scenarios can vary with slight changes and watching characters will react different if they’re approached from a different angle.  It’s kind of a form of wish fulfillment where we all have those moments that we want to go back and make right or even when we want to try something without fear of consequence; something that CAN be very dark but thankfully isn’t indulged in too much in this movie.  Instead, this manages to combine that sense of endless possibilities with the visceral enjoyment of watching someone fight back against a monster.  Sure the monster keeps winning, but you’ve got unlimited continues!

[HDDCD2 – Hey, at least it’s a lot fairer than Cupehad!]

Even if we take out the ingenious premise and how creatively it’s used in the film, this is still a REALLY solid slasher film!  Jessica Rothe is fantastic as the lead in here and hopefully she’ll go on to bigger and better things after essentially carrying this movie all the way through.  Everyone else is fine in here, but she’s the reason that everything works as well as it does, given her strong presence on screen, her comedic timing with all the gags, and even her ability to bring real drama and pathos to a character that could have been just another Slasher Movie cliché.  The villain, while a bit overpowered which we will get to later, is well realized and has a really interesting mix of menace and humor that fits in with the light tone that this movie has.  Admittedly I was wary about this movie’s PG-13 which does end up feeling like a SLIGHT hindrance to this movie living up to its full potential, but they do everything else so well that you honestly barely miss the fact that almost all the deaths are completely bloodless.  It might have been for the best though as I can see a less scrupulous director with much more freedom taking the Groundhog’s Day premise to mean they can do whatever the fuck they want to our hero because SHE’LL BE OKAY THE NEXT DAY and indulging too much in classic slasher bloodlust would have taken momentum away from everything else that makes this movie so great.  I mean, I know that ANY movie without Eli Roth is guaranteed to be better than one with him, but I’m SO glad that he (or someone with his level of tastelessness) wasn’t behind the camera on this.

[HDDCD3 – “MY EYES ARE UP HERE!!”]

Sadly, as with all films not named Dr Strangelove, this isn’t a flawless film and I can certainly point out a few minor issues with the execution of its premise that could potentially drive someone mad.  In all honesty though, this IS a rather tight movie as far as the in-universe logic and what few discrepancies I did notice in the movie didn’t really bother me while I was watching it.  Still, it’s worth pointing out that there are some logical leaps that you either have to get on board with or you won’t be able to enjoy the movie; possibly the biggest being The Killer’s flawless ability to kill our hero EVERY SINGLE DAY without fail or even that much difficulty.  Sure, it’s absolutely hilarious when they get to the montage of Tree trying to find out the killer’s identity while getting surprise slaughtered every night (my favorite is when The Killer rushes at her like a freaking linebacker and dunks her in a fountain), but then there’s the time where she find a way to get herself handcuffed for pretty much no reason.  Also, the movie never really address the idea of her just grabbing a car and GUNNING IT (within the speed limit of course) to the west coast and out of danger, but I guess even if she DID survive that day and come back the next, the killer would STILL be around and would try to get her on a theoretically non-repeating day.

[HDDCD4 – “YOU CAN’T LEAVE NOW!  WE HAD PLANS TONIGHT!!”]

For me that was all easy enough to get over, but the one thing that I had to take issue with was an INCREDIBLY obvious red herring plot turn that goes on way too long.  Now I managed to pinpoint the killer the moment they showed up on screen (you may begin heaping praise on me for my ability to recognize patterns in murder mysteries), but even if I couldn’t figure it out right off the bat, this false direction the movie takes around the third act is quite obviously a misdirection so it comes across as a somewhat meaningless distraction right when we should be ramping things up.  That said, my issue with it is somewhat mitigated by the fact that even the film seems to be somewhat self-aware of how obvious it is that IT’S A TRAP (going so far as to throw in a Sixteen Candles reference) and it’s not like the scenes are BAD as it has one of the better action set pieces in the movie, but I still wish that what was happening wasn’t so clearly telegraphed and that there was at least one more twist to the story that I hadn’t seen coming a mile away.  Also, the film has a slight tonal problem at least from my perspective and it saps a bit of the enthusiasm I had for the film.  As I said, this is CERTAINLY above an Eli Roth joint as far as crassness and male toxicity… but it does indulge a bit too much in its male gaze and feels overly judgmental of its protagonist; especially in the beginning.  Like, I get that the point of having someone repeat the same day over and over again is to teach them how to “do it right” and be a better person, but we get right up on the edge of slut shaming for this woman in the first act.  Thankfully the movie’s interpretation of being a “better” person isn’t as cringe inducing as it could have been given the starting point they chose, and the best thing ABOUT the red herring is how it takes the self-improvement idea and turns it on its head, but the fact that almost everyone BEHIND the camera was a dude is obnoxiously apparent.

[HDDCD5 – “WOOO!!  SLASHER PARTY!!  Let’s go slice up some sluts!!”]

Despite some misgivings early on with movies like The Bye Bye Man, Rings, and even that space thriller Life which you’ve all already forgotten about, this has been a really solid year for horror and this film another example of why.  With Get Out, IT, and now this movie, it’s like we’re all starting to remember how great of a genre horror films are to work with when you get the right people behind the camera that have true vision and insight.  This may not have the social commentary of Jordan Peele’s movie nor the depth and heart of Andy Muschietti’s, but this is probably the most fun I’ve had with a horror film in a really long time and is a loving throwback to the personality driven films of the eighties that really need to make a comeback; ESPECIALLY compared to some of the other films that Blumhouse puts out on a regular basis.  You should absolutely go see this movie in the theater because it frankly deserves your business and it’s worth supporting everyone who made this film as good as it is.  MAYBE not enough that Blumhouse starts thinking of sequels, but then again I’m certain that the moment this makes a nickel more than its budget they’ll be looking for a way to screw it all up.

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