Happy Death Day’s interesting/fun premise hinges on its star’s performance
It’s October, which means it’s time to go out on a limb and see some new horror movies. This weekend, the Groundhog Day-esque Happy Death Day rolled into theaters with an interesting concept and a perplexing PG-13 rating.
Let’s see if it’s worth an expensive trip to the theater rather than an evening of low budget Netflix scares, shall we?
Tree Gelbmann (Jessica Rothe) is a beautiful sorority girl with a personality/disposition almost unfortunate as her name. After waking up on her birthday in a random boy’s dorm room, she spends the rest of the day establishing her surliness and complete lack of consideration for other people.
Later that night, she is brutally murdered by someone wearing dark clothes and a mask of the most terrifying college mascot ever imagined.
At the moment of her death, Tree wakes up in the same dorm room of the same random boy…on the same day she just started before.
If you’ve ever seen Groundhog Day or any other time loop movie, then you already know the sequences of confusion, despair, and insanity that happen next. Tree eventually settles into the expected find-the-killer/character redemption arc, but with an admittedly unique and effective angle.
The aforementioned “angle” is one of the main things working in Happy Death Day‘s favor. In just about any other slasher flick, Tree would be such obvious cannon fodder that she might as well be wearing a dress for the duration of her screen time. She’s objectively unlikable almost to the point of parody.
As she relives the day of her murder, however, we slowly learn why Tree acts the way she does. Her cliche ‘mean sorority chick’ actually is an act, but with a heartbreaking (and truly sympathetic) reason behind it. This helps to keep her expected redemption story from ever feeling stale or lame–and makes it a hell of a lot of fun to start rooting for her.
The best thing about this film, however, is the actress playing Tree. Jessica Rothe is an absolute delight. In addition to her masterful comedic timing, she can also slip in and out of her character’s various states of fear/anger/regret with the skill of a seasoned actor twice her age. This is the first movie I’ve seen Rothe in (because I’m not interested in watching La La Land), but it definitely won’t be the last.
Unfortunately, Happy Death Day‘s script surrounds Rothe with painfully generic versions of the stock characters you already expect to see in a sorority slasher film–hunky philandering professor, impossibly handsome loser, over-eager roommate, evil sorority leader, etc…
…although I do need to give credit to Rachel Matthews for giving her character (queen bee Lori) a couple of moments that actually made me laugh out loud.
The film’s other big problem is how obvious and nonsensical the killer’s identity is. The script gives us plenty of clues about his/her identity, but the reasoning for her/his decision to put on a baby mask and murder Tree (along with a lot of other people) is flimsy at best.
And despite trying to keep the killer’s identity a secret until the very end, I’m guessing that most of you will have figured it out by halfway through the film.
This normally wouldn’t be too much of an issue if the story is still good (which it mostly is), but the script introduces an entire red herring subplot that even my horror-movie-hating mother could have sniffed out as a misdirection. It ends up making it feel as though Happy Death Day is spinning its wheels in a story already filled with a great deal of necessary repetition.
There are also a few plot holes here and there, but that’s to be expected…although of couple of these are big enough that you wouldn’t need to nitpick to find them.
Example for those of you who’ve already seen the film: If the physical injuries Tree sustains from dying each day accumulate, shouldn’t being inside a car when it blows up show some damage, too?
And speaking of multiple main character deaths, this felt like a bit of a wasted opportunity. I’m definitely not a fan of torture porn/extreme gore, but we certainly could have had seen some more inventive ways for poor Tree to bite the dust a few times (even with the PG-13 rating).
Despite Happy Death Day’s interesting/fun premise, the film probably doesn’t work without an actress of Jessica Rothe’s caliber in the in the main role. Thankfully, Rothe’s wonderful performance helps maximize the script’s full potential…which isn’t exactly great, but certainly worth a second viewing at some point.
Or maybe even a third.