When it comes to horror, there seems to be no one more on top of the current game than Blumhouse. Known for providing filmmakers with small budgets in exchange for full creative control, as well as providing most films with distribution through Universal Pictures or their own BH Tilt brand, Jason Blum has been seen as the solution to the modern horror problem that was plaguing studios before its inception. With the usage of full creative control, many of Blumhouse’s films have been across the board when it comes to quality. Most Blumhouse films exhibit wonderful creativity and ingenuity in filmmaking, like “Get Out,” “Split,” “The Gift,” “Sinister” and the “Insidious” series. On the other hand, providing full control to a filmmaker without a fully realized vision has backfired on the company before, with films like “The Darkness,” “The Gallows,” “Incarnate” and “The Lazarus Effect” (which I actually enjoyed) with less-than-glowing critic and audience reception. Still, many of the pros outweigh the cons in the group, and with its budget-friendly approach, it keeps many of the films original and fresh, with “Happy Death Day” being just another film in their now long line of releases.
Teresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is a college student whose life revolves around partying, drinking, promiscuity, her sorority and general bitchiness. When she wakes up on her birthday in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard) after a night of partying, she is horrified and promptly exits, getting onto her normal, hungover day. As her seemingly normal birthday continues, she makes her way to her surprise birthday party, but before she can make it there, she is killed by a cloaked figure in a mascot mask. After her death, Tree reawakens in Carter’s dorm room. Tree soon begins to realize that she is living the same day over and over again, being brutally murdered at the end of each day. As Tree’s body weakens from the trauma suffered from the ordeal, she must solve the mystery of who keeps murdering her before she doesn’t get another chance at the same day.
This is a seemingly straightforward premise, one that we’ve seen done quite a few times before. In fact, just this year we got a film just like this in a non-horror variant in “Before I Fall,” a film I find to be vastly underrated. Still, the mixture of the “Groundhog Day” plot with a slasher horror film is one that is interesting to say the least and the execution of it ends up being quite fun overall. Like many teen horror films, it does suffer some shortcomings in a few departments that plague the genre overall, but it would be a lie to say that “Happy Death Day” isn’t one of the more clever teen horror films in the past few years, and certainly one of the more enjoyable horror films to release this year.
If there’s one thing about “Happy Death Day” that really sets it apart from other films of its kind, it’s Rothe. Known only for her small role as one of Emma Stone’s roommates in “La La Land,” Rothe is a breakout star that deserves every bit of praise levied at her. Like with Zoey Deutch in “Before I Fall,” Rothe has the chance to play many different versions of her character, and the subtleties of the performance come through even when the film is being particularly unsubtle. Rothe has wonderful chemistry with the entire cast and really seems to be having fun with the whole thing. It’s not a high-art performance, but it’s one of the more entertaining ones to watch this season.
There are some things that bring “Happy Death Day” down a few pegs, though. The film’s screenplay sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, especially when it comes to its clunky dialogue. Much of the film is left to its dialogue, so when the characters are left to explain the film’s events through the dialogue, much of the clever subtleties of the film are lost in a sea of clunkiness. Still, for much of the film, I was able to ignore it, as the film’s over-the-top, comical nature about it does lend itself to feeling less natural than a normal horror film should have to. I just wish the filmmakers would’ve placed a little bit more faith in the viewers to connect much of the film’s twists and turns.
The final revelation of who the killer is in “Happy Death Day” isn’t some earth-shattering revelation by any means, but I will say that I didn’t see it coming. The final act of the film never feels like a grand finale that it could’ve had, but it still made for some real entertainment. The real issue with it is that the film ends about six different times and then continues on with the story. This made the final act feel like it was dragging on for much more than it should’ve, leaving the audience to wonder when Tree’s story really was going to come to an end.
Still, I can’t understate just how fun “Happy Death Day” is. The ways in which the film differentiates each day as a chance for Tree to be a new person in a different way than before. While the film isn’t visually sumptuous, the way in which Christopher Landon uses film techniques to show the difference between days is quite interesting to watch. It’s not a particularly scary film, but the film is quite funny, offering up more laughs than legitimate scares in the film. The humor of the film is quite satisfying and really gets to show not only the filmmaker’s, but also the actor’s range in both the horror and comedy genre.
“Happy Death Day” is an exceedingly simple film that does its ob in a competent and incredibly fun manner. It’s not masterful in any sense, but thanks to the entertaining twists and turns, as well as the star-making performance from Rothe, this horror film stands on its own two feet. It has its issues, since it’s not particularly scary or subtle in any sense, the film doesn’t pack as much of a terror punch than one might expect from a film like this. When it comes to “Groundhog Day” rip-offs, it’s quite refreshing to see “Happy Death Day” trying to do something new with it. It might not succeed at everything it goes for, but dammit it’s trying, which is more than most films of its kind can say.
Directed by: Christopher Landon
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Jason Bayle, Rob Mello, Rachel Matthews.
Runtime: 96 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity.
Universal Pictures presents, a Blumhouse production, a Christopher Landon film, “Happy Death Day”