College student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on the morning of her birthday in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) after an embarrassing night of partying. She then goes about her day, which includes attending house meetings with her sorority sisters and maintaining a secret relationship with Gregory (Charles Aitken), one of her professors. Tree’s day, which started with her hungover battling a killer headache, goes from bad to worse when she is murdered at night by an unknown perpetrator wearing a mask of the school’s mascot – a baby.
When Tree is stabbed by her assailant, she does not stay permanently dead. Instead, she finds herself once again in Carter’s room, caught in a time loop where she is forced to live the same day over and over again. No matter what Tree does, every reset ends with her being killed by the mysterious Baby Face. The only way to make this nightmare end, it seems, is for Tree to identify her murderer and stop them once and for all. Employing the aid of Carter, Tree gets to work on figuring out possible suspects so she can finally get to tomorrow.
Happy Death Day is the latest film from Blumhouse Productions, a studio that has already had a banner year in 2017 thanks to the breakout successes of both Split and Get Out. This movie, from Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse director Christopher Landon, takes the horror genre Blumhouse is best known for and puts a Groundhog Day spin on things, operating as a fascinating piece of high-concept cinema. While the film very much follows a distinct formula, it works out for the most part. Happy Death Day is a fun, if silly, blending of various genre tropes that is fueled by a strong lead performance from Rothe.
Though billed as a straight-up horror film, Happy Death Day is more light in tone than one might expect, which ends up being a double-edged sword. Landon and screenwriter Scott Lobdell possess a keen sense of self-awareness, keeping their tongues firmly planted in cheek as they understand audiences have seen this sort of set up more than once before. The macabre humor peppered throughout the proceedings keeps things entertaining, but that can come at the expense of the scares and thrills the creative team have planned. Few moments in the movie are outright frightening – even when Tree is being pursued by Baby Face – since Landon sees them through an amusing lens. Instead of injecting dread in viewers, Happy Death Day is lively and (at times) upbeat, which makes for a rather interesting experience. This approach also shortchanges elements of Tree’s plight, as the script rarely explores the physical and emotional impact of being caught in a time loop – save for a few exceptions.
In regards to the performances, Rothe carries the film on her shoulders, displaying a wide range of emotions in her portrayal of Tree. Initially, Lobdell writes the character in such an insufferable manner, he threatens to make the protagonist unlikable for the entire film, but as the movie goes on, Rothe is given more to do and has a few moments to shine. Her arc may not be as satisfying as the filmmakers might have intended (due to its reliance on clichés), but she still makes for a solid conduit for the audience as they follow the story. Broussard is also good as Carter, easily selling him as the sweet and endearing figure Tree needs in her life. The love story that blossoms between the two is a tad underdeveloped, but the actors have an easygoing chemistry with each other.
Happy Death Day is obviously trying to make Baby Face the next iconic horror movie villain, but Landon unfortunately isn’t so successful in this regard. While the appearance of a wide-eyed, buck-toothed infant on the body of a fully-grown adult has the potential to be unnerving, nothing the killer does in the film will make him nightmare fuel for the faint of heart. Part of this is due to the bizarre tonal clash that emerges, but the PG-13 rating also deserves part of the blame. Due to the limitations of the classification, the violence and gore is toned down considerably, which prevents the film from being as terrifying as it could have been. Still, the set pieces involving Baby Face are well-constructed from a technical perspective when it comes to blocking and lighting, engrossing the audience in what’s happening onscreen, and Landon keeps finding new ways to kill Tree so things feel fresh.
Ultimately, what hamstrings Happy Death Day from realizing its full potential is the fact that it doesn’t bring much new to the table to revitalize its tried and true formula. The film hits all of the same beats from similar titles like Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, giving it a feeling of deja vu. Granted, making it part slasher flick allows the film to be partially unique, but these aspects aren’t quite effective and the third act twists get increasingly ridiculous to the point where the movie doesn’t truly hold up upon reflection. These shortcomings aren’t enough to derail the picture, but they undeniably hold it back – which can be frustrating.
In the end, Happy Death Day is a surprisingly gleeful combination of two familiar premises that chugs along at a nice pace and makes for a fun time at the movies (especially opening on a Friday the 13th). It’s not going to be remembered as a horror classic, but it is a crowd-pleasing endeavor due to the presence of its stars and filmmaking technique. Fans of the Blumhouse brand and those intrigued by the marketing will find something to enjoy here, meaning the studio’s winning streak this year has continued.
Happy Death Day is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 96 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material, and partial nudity.
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