By Jack Dignan
There came a point in this movie where the realization struck that this wasn’t anything like I expected it to be. Expectations were low going in, and as the film progressed, I found myself entertained but certainly not scared. One jump scare got me good, I’ll give it that, but nothing else exceeded past that point. Then, something happens. It’s a montage of lead protagonist Tree (Jessica Rothe) attempting to track down her killer while getting murdered over and over, set to the backdrop of Demi Lovato’s Confident. It was at that point where I realised I was in for a very different experience than anticipated.
This is far from a horror movie. I mean, yeah, technically it’s classified as one. Technically there’s a mysterious serial killer on the loose, murdering Tree (a name that’s actually real and not used as a joke) over and over while she lives the same day on repeat, but it isn’t scary. In fact, it’s not even a thriller. Or at least it barely constitutes as one. It’s a young adult murder mystery with plenty of comedy to boot, and once it begun to sink in that this was to be the case, I started letting myself have fun with the experience at hand. If you don’t, you’re in for a bloody long 90 minutes, I’ll tell you that.
Happy Death Day takes a very self aware, tongue in cheek approach to its story, in which the growing trend of teenage-oriented Groundhog Day movies gains another solid contender. It follows the typical tropes (since apparently we’ve done this enough times, twice this year already, that they have become tropes), with an unlikeable lead developing as a character into a better person, all while attempting to uncover whom their killer is. It’s Cluedo from the perspective of the victim, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Most of it plays out in a predictable manner, all with one exception. Just when you think you’ve worked out who the killer is, the rug is pulled out from underneath you.
One scene even sees Tree (I’m never not going to laugh at that name) discussing with potential love interest Carter (Israel Broussard) the similarities between this scenario and the events of Groundhog Day. It’s this type of genuinely funny humour that balances out the plot and redeems its lack of freights. It isn’t enough to overcome familiarities and genre tropes present throughout, or its severely underdeveloped supporting characters, save for Carter, but it makes the film watchable. You’re not going to want to die over and over again just by watching this film. You’ll be happy to live through the experience and come out the other side.
The colour grading and overall artistic design does have a tendency to get a little inconsistent between shots, some straight up going from morning to late in the afternoon, but director Christopher Landon, most known for his involvement in the Paranormal Activity sequels, does bring some style to the table. Most effective is his twisted hallway tracking shots, especially during a sequence in the hospital, further elevated by the sheer un-comfortableness of the mysterious antagonist’s inhuman mask. The mask itself is scarier than the film, but it works in creating an intriguing antagonist, with a conclusion you won’t see coming. Or maybe you will. I’ve never met you before. Probably. Have I?
Also great are the film’s performances, especially the actress behind Tree (I definitely could’ve worded this sentence better, but I just wanted another excuse to write out her name as Tree), Jessica Rothe. After her brief appearance in last year’s Best Picture winner La La Land—sorry, just realised Moonlight won Best Picture—Rothe finally receives a leading role, and she makes sure she deserves it. Supporting cast members are largely inconsistent, most over-playing their roles for ineffective comedic purposes, but their screen time is scarce in comparison to Rothe, who nails all elements of her diverse performance.
Happy Death Day’s biggest problem is in its final act. Even more so than the recently reviewed Mountain Between Us (read it here), Happy Death Day decides to end over and over again, much like the general gist of the plot tends to do. You think it’s finishing, especially when it fades to black, only to have the story continue on in a never-ending loop. After about the third time, it begun to get under my skin, and the final ending, while hysterical and unexpected, was about one too many. There’s only so many times you can end this movie, and when you’ve got more endings than Lord of the Rings in a 90 minutes movie, you know there’s a problem.
The main point that I took away from Happy Death Day was that it wasn’t Flatliners, and that’s a very good thing. Universal and Jason Blum nail what they were going for, which is essentially a horror movie version of Groundhog Day, and their attempts are encapsulated simply in the film’s logo. The famous Universal Pictures logo gets about a third of the way through before rewinding and starting over, twice. It’s a simple stylistic choice that tells the audience everything they need to know without saying a single thing.
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