You may well have seen the trailers for Happy Death Day and, depending on your sense of humour and levels of tolerance, you may have either smirked and said, “Oh yeah, I wonder how that’ll go?” or hissed, “What a stupid gimmick – no dice”. Each standpoint is more than understandable. In fact – to cite 1984’s concept of “doublethink” – both sentiments actually hold true at the same time throughout HDD’s pleasingly lithe 96-minute run time.
Directed by horror meister Christopher Landon (who wrote the Paranormal Activity series) and (suitably) written by comic book writer Scott Lobdell (X-Men), HDD’s plot revolves around an undeniably high-concept gimmick: Tree Gelbman (played with panache by rising star Jessica Rothe, La La Land) is murdered on her birthday, over, and over, and over again, waking up on the same day the moment she is killed. The most casual observers have pointed out that it’s basically a mash-up of Groundhog Day and Scream, and that is bang on.
From the outset, this film had a ceiling; it was never going to be Oscar-bait nor reach the acclaim of modern horror peers such as It Follows and this year’s previous Blumhouse hit Get Out, not that there’s a crime in that. However, it definitely had the capacity to be a steaming turkey, such is the “thin ice” nature of its premise. Pleasingly, HDD is far from a turkey, it may be hammy – to overuse food references – but it isn’t bad by any interpretation of the word; at its strongest when embracing a “devil may care” attitude and speeding within its parameters at full throttle.
HDD aims, for a large part, to be a horror-comedy. It’s unfortunate then that the film is at its weakest and most flimsy when it strives and strains for laughs – such endeavours fall reasonably flat on the regular. The desire to inject a regular beat of humour is understandable as HDD’s framework is playful by design, and it does have some moments that amuse, but there’s a fine art to comedy, especially when interspersed with horror.
An interesting – and bolstering – facet to HDD is the fact that it is strong in its conviction of portraying Tree as downright unlikeable from the get-go. She glides about treating people with contempt, is clearly aware of her privileges and how to exploit them, and lacks even the most basic of convictions and moral compass to stand for anything useful or wholesome. She is the perfect embodiment of what people visualise when they hear the term “generation me”. As a most appropriate comparison, Scream centres on the perfect-in-every-way Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), and the horror surrounding her mistreatment is amplified by the fact that she’s a downright wholesome do-gooder. Tree is never packaged in that light – the first scene is her waking up in underpants and with a throbbing hangover in a stranger’s dorm room – and Rothe makes one’s teeth gnash throughout the first half of the flick, such is her utterly convincing portrayal. A big tick for changing up the accepted norms here, and also for Rothe’s embodiment of Tree.
Crucially, and as her infinite repeat of hellish morbidity churns away, Tree slowly begins to identify gaping holes in her life – the plastic and false nature of the people she surrounds herself with, the meaningless and material things she represents – and the culmination of these realisations begin to eat at her whilst she tries to navigate her way through this utter bedlam. It is in her evolving treatment and consideration for Carter Davis (Israel Broussard, The Bling Ring) – the good lad whose bed she awakens in each time – where the film grows and intrigues most outside its main concept. The formula here hardly reinvents the wheel, but it drives the narrative forth in acceptable fashion.
Additionally, the frustration, confusion and morbidity experienced by Tree having to live (and die) through the same horrific sequences of events over and over plays out rather well, with some nice “food for thought” and “what would you do?” moments keeping the film engaging enough. And, pivotally, just as Happy Death Day veers towards the danger zones of “farcical” or “grating”, it changes up and freshens its scenery.
Sadly, and almost inevitably, the ending is rather limp, convoluted and confusing, and lets the whole journey down a fair way. There’s some mildly clever twists within its final third, but they are diluted by the questionable motives of the perpetrator and overly convenient happenstances. And, it must also be said: a large portion of the film’s “chills” are born of that most baseline of tactics – the jump scare (sigh/yawn/grrr).
While it does have its fair share of detractions, the film isn’t bad overall, and early box office numbers – over $30m in box-office earnings (on a $4.8m budget) in its first few days of release – certainly support this notion. The Happy Death Day team have created a horror-comedy-fantasy that is interesting and good enough to reel in plenty of fence sitters, cynics and “let’s ride” fans alike. It’s worth a watch.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10