“Happy Death Day” Review: Die, Die Again

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Before the story even starts, Happy Death Day has let its viewers in on the joke.

The movie opens with the familiar orbiting globe of Universal, the studio which distributed the film. Then it abruptly resets, and begins displaying the globe again. Then another reset, and we finally get the complete logo.

Happy Death Day is far from the first film, or even the first Universal film, to futz with its producers’ vanity plate. But it’s an interesting choice for a film that was marketed as a horror flick. (The film was produced by the popular horror studio Blumhouse, whose logo remains untouched.)

Directed by Christopher B. Landon (from a script by famed comic-book writer Scott Lobdell), Happy Death Day features a lot of comedic moments throughout its dark and tension-filled storyline. But the humorous moments don’t undercut the more serious ones. Instead, the film blends its elements together in a highly entertaining story that kept me engrossed from start to finish.

That’s not to say the film is flawless – it does have some issues, which I’ll discuss momentarily. But it’s also a lot more fun that any horror film has any right to be.

Happy Death Day puts a clever spin on a famous premise

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Theresa “Tree” Gelbman is a spoiled college sorority girl who finds herself caught in an endless time-loop, reliving the same day over and over again. Each instance culminates in her being murdered by a masked assailant, after which she immediately wakes up and starts the whole day over again. In short, it’s like Groundhog Day with more death. (Come to think of it, Groundhog Die would be a pretty cool title.)

Despite the familiarity, all the pieces for an intriguing story quickly fall into place. Once Tree realizes that her death is the reset trigger, she must figure out who is targeting her and stop herself from being killed again (and again, and again). It’s not a complicated setup, but it’s the basis for solid intrigue, some shocking (though not bloody; we’re in PG-13 territory, folks) deaths, and an undercurrent of humor that keeps the story flowing smoothly.

The film is also a clever reversal of the usual mystery trope – swapping a whodunit for a who-gonna-do-it – and an amusing subversion of the “pretty college girl gets murdered” trope that’s become a cliché in the horror field. Even the name “Tree” is a clever nudge in the ribs – the main character remains perpetually alive, but in a state of permanent stasis.

And it’s all tightly anchored by its lead actress, the virtually unknown Jessica Rothe. Outside of MTV’s one-season wonder Mary + Jane, Rothe’s resume hasn’t extended much beyond a supporting role in La La Land. But her performance in this film is a delight, letting Tree believably progress from a helpless victim to the strong-willed heroine she becomes by the film’s climax.

But in order to discuss that climax, I need to get into more spoilerrific territory. Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film.

! ! ! Spoilers Below ! ! !

The big reveal is clever, but clumsily executed

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Happy Death Day never explains how it is that Tree keeps repeating the same day over and over. And that’s fine – the film is focused on the mystery, and the tight pacing and brief running time keep us from asking too many questions about the mechanics. But it also puts a heavy burden on the mystery, which needs a satisfying payoff.

And indeed, the payoff itself does not disappoint. While I confess to speculating on the villain’s identity about halfway through, the film employs clever misdirection to make us believe there’s a serial killer involved. (The built-in use of the reset button allows for multiple climaxes, any of which could be the final one.) Once all the pieces fall into place, we get a conclusion that’s both logical and satisfying, which should be enough to call the film a success.

But much of the serial killer material rings hollow, and deadens the tension leading up to the true reveal. The idea that Tree is being targeted by a nutjob with no real connection to her life feels cheap, and makes little sense besides. (How would he keep finding her in each alternative scenario?) Her rationale for pegging him as the killer doesn’t hold together, either – Tree is far from the only pretty blonde girl on campus. The film is obviously pulling a fast one, which makes the final twist less surprising than it should be.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much from this film, which was produced on a typical horror-film shoestring budget. But watching the same day play out over and over, I couldn’t help but grow more and more attached to Tree’s predicament, and was hoping the sheer number of setups would ultimately yield a truly memorable payoff.

Happy Death Day is playing in theaters nationwide.

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