Go shawty… it’s your birthday… If you’re as sick of that song as I am, then the relentless marketing of Happy Death Day certainly did its job. Luckily for us, that is not the only clever surprise of this film. Horror has been on a hot streak the past few years and the missteps usually come from the more mainstream releases (see my review for Friend Request or Michael Kaye’s take on Wish Upon). However, Happy Death Day successfully delivers with a darkly funny take on the slasher genre. The film follows Tree as she relives all the events of her birthday, including her grisly death, repeatedly until she can figure out who the killer is. Anchored by a breakout performance from Jessica Rothe and this interesting premise, we are given an early Halloween Treat that is definitely not short on tricks. Though the film may not be an instant classic like Scream or Groundhog’s Day, the movies this film have been most often compared to, the combination of the two is the closest comparison you can make when talking about Happy Death Day.
It would be pretty easy to start with the premise of the film when talking about this release, but I was ultimately impressed with the story they chose to tell around the premise, which is usually the difference-maker between a good and a bad horror film. Tree is the definition of a hot mess: a college girl in a sorority she could not care less about, entangled sexually with a professor, and overall, is a pretty self-absorbed protagonist. Knowing the premise, you can probably see where this is going. The terrible lead is going to keep reliving these terrible events until she becomes a better person. I bet I can go find negative reviews right now that call this film “predictable,” but if a well-trodden story is executed well, does it matter? Happy Death Day does a fantastic job of not just using its premise as a crutch, but actually uses it as a storytelling tool, which is cause for commending its director, Christopher B. Landon (Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse). I’ll also say this film is not as predicable as you think. Though you may know where the film is going here and there, there are plenty of fun twists to keep you on your toes all the way to the end. While on this subject, the pacing on display is on point, with the entire runtime clocking in at a lean 96 minutes.
With the obvious out of the way, I have to send mad love to Jessica Rothe in this film. It’s pretty typical for mainstream films like this to be filled with unknown actors giving bad performances, but again, that is not the case here. Rothe gives a fantastic performance as Tree, showing lots of charisma and some terrific comedic timing. When I say this film is funny, I don’t mean that it is so bad that it is funny. It genuinely has some devilishly funny dialogue, most of which comes from our lead. Tree is a pretty great final girl, who is never helpless at any point in the film and is chock full of attitude. When she quickly figures out her situation, she wastes no time in making moves toward stopping it, which I love. Happy Death Day subverts a lot of character tropes as you watch Tree mature and turn things around. The film likes to play on college stereotypes and they do it so well, I could think of people I met in college for every character in the film. Speaking of which, the supporting cast isn’t half bad either. Sure, they may seem a bit hollow in comparison to Tree, but they serve their purpose. Rachel Matthews, who plays Danielle, was hilarious. The ridiculousness that came from her mouth made me laugh and say “yep, I’ve seen plenty of her before.” Carter, the love interest of sorts, was also fantastic and cleverly-utilized, especially when it comes to subverting tropes of one-night stands and “the nice guy.” But this is no doubt Jessica Rothe’s film, and she absolutely owns it with a solid screen presence.
It’s kind of funny that I’ve been praising this film for characters and story elements, while barely touching on the horror elements. I won’t call it a negative, but it is one of the lower point for the film: unfortunately, Happy Death Day is a little light on scares. Not that every horror film needs to be bloody and dark, but this film lacks in almost any horror department. There isn’t a whole lot of tension, there aren’t many psychological aspects going on, and the film does employ some empty jump scares. The killer is pretty fun, but even that aspect is a little underwhelming. I’m not saying that this film doesn’t have some fun scares and thrilling scenes, especially given the nature of knowing what is possibly around the corner. I suppose it is also hard to create suspense knowing that Tree is going to die and then wake up once again.
The film ultimately suffers from its PG-13 rating, which I personally believe should be outlawed in horror. One thing I was excited for, due to the premise, was the hope of seeing a bunch of creative, gruesome kills. I’ll give the movie some credit for being clever once again, as they had a way around this to ensure the rating, but as a horror fan I was disappointed. The film is a lot of fun, but would have been a BLAST with more blood and some uniqueness to its violence. They could have made the killer a bit more menacing too. Granted, the film wasn’t about the killer really, but in a world we lack iconic horror figures, Happy Death Day missed out on an opportunity to capitalize on this, especially in the prime of Halloween season.
Lastly, I have to show some love to the production crew and marketing team. This film is shot surprisingly well. One thing you can always rely on from Blumhouse, regardless of film quality, is that the movie will at least look and sound good. The integration of the premise into production is also pretty cool, showing off some crafty editing with their clever transitions. I love how Happy Death Day incorporates repetition into the sound design and dialogue of the film. Without spoiling it, even the film’s opening credits do something really cool to show that the film was all in with this premise. The marketing, though annoying at times, makes sense with the film too. Using pretty much the same trailer for promotion with the same song over and over again got it stuck in the heads of many, but when you think about it is pretty genius. I was pretty much conditioned into seeing this movie, which I’m not mad about.
Happy Death Day definitely has been added to my list of “Biggest Surprises of 2017.” Even with a lot going against it, mainly coming off as a gimmicky October horror film, I had a lot of fun watching this film. Jessica Rothe shows a lot of range and should be on a lot of peoples’ radar after this film. Not only is it entertaining and clever, this movie made me sit back and realize the there is still hope for PG-13 mainstream horror. This film has almost everything you’d want from a film to get you into the Halloween spirit: a unique premise, a kickass protagonist, plenty of laughs, and even a heart-felt message. Don’t sleep on Happy Death Day because it is everything I expected and much more. If you’re still not convinced, just read this review a few more times.