Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Christopher Landon
Writer: Scott Lobdell
Producer: Jason Blum
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello
A college student is inexplicably cursed to relive the day of her death until she solves the mystery of her murder.
I reference “Ouija” (review here), “Unfriended” (review here), and “The Gallows” (review here) when discussing Blumhouse’s teen-targeted thrillers almost as often as “From the Producers of…” appears on their posters. Yet I have to mention such movies once more because they are relevant in identifying how “Happy Death Day” marks a maturity point for the company’s previously shortsighted takes on PG-13 horror.
What we see with “Happy Death Day” is Blumhouse graduating its usual character group from high school to college, adding enough complication to a straightforward setup to be creatively clever, and maintaining respect for the resulting material. In so doing, Blumhouse at last bridges the gap between a disposable DTV rental only the slumber party set finds original and a crafty slasher capable of attracting seasoned genre fans who’d like a shot of whiskey with their mainstream milkshakes.
That sums up “Happy Death Day.” It fits the mold for earning undiscerning millennial money formerly fine with simpler fare such as “Unfriended,” etc. Yet it also has self-aware flair growing evergreen legs, making the movie one worth remembering. I could run off a list of Blumhouse productions you’ve seen but couldn’t recall specifics about, much less want to see future iterations of. “Happy Death Day” has a story you won’t soon forget, and a hook many fans would be eager to experience again.
There’s no need to repeat the common reference of “Happy Death Day” being a horror movie re-imagining of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day,” even though it is. There’s also little point in lengthily recapping the plot. Basically, self-centered university student Theresa, who goes by Tree for short, cannot stop reliving a Monday that always ends in her murder. She eventually reasons that solving the mystery might sever the loop, kicking off a trial-and-error investigation to cross off suspects while her death keeps repeating along the way.
“Happy Death Day” is not a comedy, although it very much has a slick sense of humor. It’s no accident that the school’s sports team is the Bayfield Babies, a name no university would actually brand on athletic uniforms. This is a two birds with one stone inclusion to clad the killer in a uniquely offbeat mask while screaming out loud that the film wants to spike fright with fun.
This tongue-in-cheek tone works well to let the audience in on the joke that director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell acknowledge inherent absurdity in their impossible premise. “Happy Death Day” fails all logic tests should anyone dare to ask a question such as, how is Tree allowed to go about her life without extensive police interference following several spectacularly suspicious murders? Breathlessly racing from one cycle to the next, as well as burning a light of levity in the grimness, reminds the audience to continue looking straight ahead, never pausing to view the film so rigidly that escapist entertainment intentions are entirely forgotten.
Bear McCreary’s wildly over-the-top score hammers this notion home. If it weren’t McCreary’s name on the music, I would have guessed the composer went way off the rails with ridiculousness. Considering McCreary’s pedigree, it stands to reason he was instead specifically instructed to go for broke with high-pitched horns and energetic tempos overly emphasizing onscreen action. Again, the creators want viewers tuned into a specific mix of madcap madness and macabre murder, and McCreary’s music reflects those fluctuations.
The movie only treats itself as seriously as Tree takes her situation. One more reason why a darkly comic bite fits so snugly has to do with how the movie’s attitude mirrors Tree’s progression from nerve-wracked fear to “this again?” frustration. Tree hits a point of exhaustion with her predicament that gradually moves her from frantically huffing after each murder to rolling her eyes at the thought of doing it all over again. Her quirky personality evolution freshens the film’s flow so momentum doesn’t stay stagnant in overlong moments or moods, which is an on-point approach for telling a tale whose nature requires repeatedly recycling certain setups.
The climax comes with a fairly dippy misdirect followed by a reveal along the lines of “someone would really go through this much trouble?” silliness. No matter how disappointing the outcome can be perceived, the suspense spark following that wick through to its explosion burns with no less intense heat. “Happy Death Day” doesn’t turn any tropes or stereotypes on their ears. It simply employs them knowingly for pure enjoyment purposes. While believability bumps are inevitable, the collective personality of its cast and its style makes the movie a surprisingly pleasing PG-13 slasher.
Review Score: 75