Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence/Terror, Crude Sexual Content, Language, some Drug Material and partial Nudity
Directed by: Christopher B. Landon
Written by: Scott Lobdell
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello, Phi Vu, Caleb Spillyards, Jason Bayle, Laura Clifton & Cariella Smith
Color me shocked. Though the initial concept of GROUNDHOG DAY crossed with a slasher seemed interesting from the get-go, I didn’t have a whole lot of faith in HAPPY DEATH DAY. Part of that may have been from the PG-13 rating on a slasher, a concept that seems like an oxymoron and has never worked in the past ever (2008’s PROM NIGHT, anyone?). Another reason for my doubts may have come from the production company of Blumhouse, which produces great horror films alongside a whole lot of throwaway cinematic crap. Whatever my reasons for being skeptical were, I’ll shove them aside because HAPPY DEATH DAY is one of the best horror films of 2017!
Sorority sister Tree Gelbman’s (Jessica Rothe) birthday begins with her waking up horribly hungover in a strange dorm room, continues with her heading to class where she hits on her professor behind his wife’s back, and ends with her being brutally murdered at the hands of a masked killer…or does it? Because Tree wakes up again in the same dorm room, repeats her birthday with a serious case of Deja vu and gets brutally murdered in a different way by the masked killer…only to wake up in the dorm room again and relive the…well, you see where this is going. Tree is stuck in a time loop on her birthday, a day where someone plots to kill her and keeps succeeding. If Tree wishes to survive this agonizing experience and break the time loop, she’ll have to solve the mystery of the killer’s identity and prevent her own death from occurring.
To be bluntly honest, HAPPY DEATH DAY shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, but this film is fantastic. This is a hugely entertaining mixture of slasher fun, a time-warping mystery thriller, and MEAN GIRLS-esque laughs. If that combination sounds up your alley in any way, shape or form, then consider yourself sold on this movie because its just as entertaining as it sounds. Part of the reason that HAPPY DEATH DAY works greatly is because the director and screenwriter keep finding interesting new alterations to put on the same scenes that might otherwise get boring as we’re watching the same moments repeat themselves over and over…alongside the increasingly frustrated Tree.
Actress Jessica Rothe hasn’t been in many big films (mainly a supporting role in last year’s overrated LA LA LAND), but I hope that changes in the near future. Rothe plays a final girl and makes an at-first totally unsympathetic protagonist into someone worth caring about and rooting for. Part of the reason that this time warp slasher works as well as it does is because this character goes through a personal transformation alongside the horror hijinks of trying to solve/prevent her own repeated murder. Like everybody and their dog has already pointed out prior to this film’s release, this is the slasher version of GROUNDHOG DAY and the film even lovingly references its inspiration during one hilarious scene.
Speaking of which, some horror fanatics who are strictly hoping for frights might find themselves slightly put off by the HAPPY DEATH DAY’s stretches into other genres. There are many very funny moments and a couple of oddly effective dramatic bits. This is a film that’s mainly a horror movie (at the end of the day, it’s a slasher film on repeat), but it also works to please crowds with laughs and feelings. This combination worked perfectly for me and made the entire experience that much more enjoyable. HAPPY DEATH DAY opened big at the box office and (judging from the packed theater that I saw this in on its second weekend) will likely continue to bank. I’m so happy for its success, because this film deserves it. It’s a blast from beginning to end.
On slasher merits, HAPPY DEATH DAY is given the unique position of having a body count that mainly consists of one victim over and over and over again. Tree’s many demises range in quality, murder weapons, and scenarios. Someone clearly wants this sorority sister dead and will go to any length to ensure that she doesn’t live past her birthday. Because this does sport a PG-13 rating, the film is noticeably absent of hardcore gore. It does pack fairly violent/creative deaths into its running time, but some of these are played for comic effect and others merely suggest the final outcome of Jess’s murder. It would have been nice to see the gore in this slasher movie, but HAPPY DEATH DAY doesn’t make that an essential component of its plot. I never thought I’d be praising a PG-13 slasher flick and yet, here I am doing just that!
HAPPY DEATH DAY plays with its time-looping slasher concept in ways that make the viewer laugh, sympathize with Tree, and occasionally sends chills down the viewer’s spine. At some points, the time-loop itself becomes scarier than the masked killer, because that entire scenario is nightmarish and the film milks it for everything that it’s worth. Though some more savvy viewers have stated that they correctly guessed the killer’s identity in advance, I found myself strung along by the film’s many red herrings and clever misdirections. The conclusion had me shocked in the best way imaginable and I walked out completely satisfied. When I watch this film a second time around, I’m positive that I’ll spot small clues scattered throughout. HAPPY DEATH DAY is one of the best surprises I’ve had all year. This is easily one of the very best horror films of 2017 and I plan on rewatching it many times in the future.