Ignore the cheesy title, Happy Death Day is perfection

There are a handful of people and companies that churn out low-budget horror films. James Wan, Jason Blum and his Blumhouse productions, and the folks at Platinum Dunes are the most prominent, and of that group and their high-profile titles, Platinum Dunes cannot hold a candle to the others even with the backing of Micahel Bay, churning out one cookie-cutter film after another and disparaging 80s classics like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Hills Have Eyes. Wan struck gold with the Insidious and The Conjuring franchises, while Blumhouse is behind a host of original horror films including Get Out, Split, The Visit, Ouija, The Purge and… the Insidious films.

And now Blumhouse strikes again with their latest, Happy Death Day, a horror spin on Groundhog Day.

When the film opens we meet Tree (Jessica Rothe), college student and supreme mean girl, waking up in a dorm after a drunken night out. Tree is not happy with her situation and leaves the guy Carter (Israel Broussard) behind, even though he’s been nothing but kind to her. Hung-over and having to deal with the walk of shame back to her sorority house, she also has to deal with her roommate, her birthday, the married professor she’s having an affair with, and her estranged father.

Later that night, she’s on her way to a party where she’s confronted by someone in a freaky baby mask (it’s the college mascot) and she is murdered … until she wakes up again in the same dorm room. She makes changes to her routine the second day but she dies again and again and again and again, no matter how many times she changes something, the same killer always finds her. Tree needs to find out who the killer is because each attack is taking a toll on her physically, with so much scar tissue the doctor is shocked she’s alive. The question is can Tree discover who the killer is before her time runs out?

Happy Death Day is kind of a cheesy title … but Happy Birthday to Me was already taken. But despite the title, this is one perfectly crafted horror film with a lot of natural humor and a ton of heart. That’s mostly due to the terrifically written script from Scott Lobdell, whose credits are mostly in TV movies and series. This story is extremely well thought out, everything makes logical sense, and even with all the red herrings and potential suspects (and there is a very clever montage where Tree tracks each one to see if they’re the killer but ends up back where she started each time), there is one really key clue that tells you who the killer is if you’re paying attention, so you really don’t feel there was a cheat at the end. The script also has quite a bit of humor but it comes naturally out of the characters and situation, so it never feels forced. There is one slightly over-the-top moment of pure ridiculousness that I can forgive because the rest of the movie is just so well done. Director Christopher Landon (who directed the, in my opinion, supremely under-rated Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) also manages to hold things together, especially as many scenes have to repeat but are still just different enough to make sense. The musical score by Bear McCreary is also terrific, really evoking the original Friday the 13th score by Harry Manfredini at times.

The cast is also game, also having to repeat several scenes many times but just a bit differently each time to make the story work. Everyone is really, really good. But the film lives and dies on the lead, Tree, and Carter, the guy who ends up helping her even though he has no idea what’s going on. Israel Broussard is simply charming, not a typical “frat guy” character and the complete opposite of the mean Tree. He really becomes her rock, tries to help her with her suspects list, but ultimately ends up starting at zero with her every time she wakes up. No matter how insane she appears, and for him it’s only one time, he still shows up for her. Jessica Rothe is a star (her biggest film to date is probably La La Land in which she had a small role), plain and simple. When the movie starts, Tree is someone that the audience is rooting for to die. She’s mean to Carter, she’s mean to her sorority sisters (especially her roommate Lori), she’s mean to her father, and she doesn’t give a damn about the wife of the professor she’s screwing. But as she goes through the ordeal of dying, Tree transforms gradually so that you have to root for her to succeed. Rothe gives a terrific and convincing performance and she should be someone to watch out for as her career blossoms. This movie rests on the shoulders of Jessica Rothe, who is in pretty much every single scene, and she carries it masterfully. I can’t heap enough praise on her performance.

Last month It came along and scared the bejeebers out of people with its very disturbing and heavy storytelling. Happy Death Day is a welcome respite from that kind of horror, a movie that knows what it is and has a heck of a lot of fun with its twisting, turning story. There are a few jumps, there are a few laughs, and it’s very clever from beginning (including the Universal Pictures logo) to end … and there’s no last minute stinger to destroy everything that had been carefully crafted, so major points for that too. I really wasn’t expecting much from the movie but I should not have doubted that Blumhouse would not have delivered another hit. Everyone at the screening I chatted with were equally pleased afterwards, so don’t discount this as just another cheap slasher film. It is so much more.

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Chuck Duncan
Chuck Duncan has been the film critic for Baltimore OUTloud and its various incarnations for 20 years. He was previously a film and TV critic for CliqueClack.com and now owns the pop culture website Hotchka.com where he reviews films, TV shows and theatre. Chuck is the head judge for the annual 29 Days Later Film Project, and works for Anne Arundel County's PEG Studio