Director: Christopher Landon
Studios: Blumhouse Productions, Universal Pictures
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard
Tagline: Get up. Live your day. Get Killed. Again.; Make Every Death Count.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: horror, thriller, slasher, masked murderer, serial killer, mystery, black comedy
Scare score: C+
Plot overview: College student Tree (Rothe) wakes up in a strange dorm to an even stranger birthday. That night, she is stalked and killed by an ominous hooded figure wearing the mask of the school's mascot— a very unnerving baby face. Suddenly, Tree wakes back up in the same dorm room on the same morning her birthday. After several more horrifying encounters and deaths, Tree realizes she is trapped in a bloody time loop and must stop her own murder before it can happen again.
Critics have described this movie as Groundhog Day meets Scream, and truly that is the best way to sum it up. The creative team clearly had a fun time mixing a classic slasher film with some more lighthearted '80s influences, and the result really was an enjoyable movie. I wanted to see this really badly when it first came out, but never got around to it for whatever reason, so here we are two years later. Of course, that's nothing compared to how long this movie actually took to get off the ground:
Fun fact: The idea for this movie was first announced in 2007. It was called Half to Death and was set to be produced by Michael Bay and star Megan Fox (oh, the early aughts). I'm glad it took so long to get green-lighted.
Happy Death Day toes the line between serving the audience a fairly engaging mystery/slasher/thriller and also having a lot of fun with itself while introducing us to the overtly stereotypical Bayfield University and exploring new ways to kill off Tree. I will quickly say that I don't personally know any Theresas, and I've never heard of a Theresa going by "Tree" so I thought that from the start I was distracted by our leading lady's name because I was trying to figure out what they were saying. Kind of felt like they were really going out on a limb (Sorry).
One thing that immediately caught me off guard as we got into the swing of things was the similarity between this movie and the fantastic Netflix original Russian Doll starring an incomparable Natasha Lyonne. If you haven't seen that yet, I highly recommend it because it's an artistic, quirky, and beautiful metaphysical exploration of mental illness, relationships, and meaning. At the time, I thought it was so original, a darker turn on Groundhog Day to be certain, but while watching Happy Death Day it became clear to me that Russian Doll must have taken a few pointers from this movie as well. Still really worth a watch if you are looking for an easy show to binge. Moving along...
I really found myself enjoying this film. While it did not live up to the expectations I had for it, I thought it was easy to watch, with its fair share of thrills and scares mostly concentrated in the first third of the movie while the rest of the film becomes more focused on Tree solving the mystery of her own repeating and impending murder. By the point, the scares dwindle rapidly and the true action of the movie sets in.
Like most other films and shows about time loops, this becomes a movie about character agency and personal growth. For whatever reason we choose to believe, Tree is given a chance to save not only herself but to mend some broken relationships along the way. I thought Jessica Rothe did a nice job as Tree, turning a fairly one-dimensional role into a more entertaining and strong lead. We've seen 'bitchy popular sorority sister' done a million times, typically as a victim, so it was refreshing to see a slasher film turn that on its head as she overcame fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and—you know—murder. She refused to become a victim, unless it was for somebody else's sake. That being said, we see Tree in neglige countless times while every male in the film remains completely covered, there is a subplot of a closeted gay guy who is ultimately reduced from being a potential threat to being "cute"— as one might treat a pet—and finally there is a murder scene staged as an allusion to sexual assault in fraternity culture. Some of these felt a little too cheap to me in a movie that is otherwise about empowerment.
I thought the creative team did a great job with the Baby Face killer. Horror Buff loves a good masked murderer, and this mask really found a good balance that mirrored the movie's comedic lightness while still being a horror film. It was irritating and eerie at the same time.
Fun fact: The mask in this movie was created by Tony Gardner, who also designed one of the most famous faces in horror: the Ghostface mask from the Scream franchise. He was inspired to use the image of a baby because his wife was carrying their first child at the time of production.
There was also some nice filming going on here, which is especially important to slashers. I was happy to see the lovely campus of Loyola University down in New Orleans: It helped set the scene of your typical southern college experience, which was further enriched by all the shots from the quads (filled with potential suspects!) as well as that great sorority house. I enjoyed most of the chase scenes, even when they became a little ridiculous, and perhaps one of the most fun things this movie was able to do was reinvent Tree's perpetual death in new and wild ways. My favorite shot from the film was towards the end of the movie when we see Tree blow out the candle on her birthday cupcake, and that gorgeous red candle drips a little wax like blood while the smoke still lingers in the air. Really nice.
I liked that this movie offered up so many suspects as we joined Tree in her nightmarish birthday whodunnit. I personally was more suspicious of Dr. Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken) and/or his wife Stephanie (Laura Clifton), so while I didn't even like roommate Lori's (Ruby Modine) look from the start, I didn't really see it coming. In retrospect, there were a ton of clues, from the promotional material of the cupcake all the way through her sketchy way of finding out Tree's birthday and even her questionable overtime at the hospital. All in all, it was a neat way for the entire plot to come together and add that twist at the end.
Final critique: This movie asks us to buy into a very curated and stereotypical college experience, but it advances the slasher tropes slightly by giving our final girl the agency to save herself. The movie is a mix of black comedy and thriller with some added unexplained phenomenon and lots of action, so it's definitely going to be appealing to a wider range of audiences than a horror movie alone might be. (This thing KILLED at the box office. 2017 was a huge year for Blumhouse between this movie, Split, and Get Out.) Now that I've finally seen it, I guess I can look forward to the sequel, although I've heard it's even less scary. Overall, this was an enjoyable watch, easy for anyone looking for a few scares but otherwise a genuinely fun film.