#REVIEW: “HAPPY DEATH DAY”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up in a stranger’s dorm room after a late night of drinking. Embarrassed, she leaves and spends the day trying to forget it is her birthday. On her way to a party that evening, she is murdered. She wakes up in bed moments later and has déjà vu as she plays out the same events as the previous day, including getting murdered. And then it happens again. Rather quickly, Tree realizes she will not stop reliving the same horrific day until she successfully stops her own murder.
Right from its opening frames, Happy Death Day is a complete blast to watch. Writer Scott Lobdell’s script – a play on the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day – knows its concept is inherently silly. But it uses that conceit to play on what it means to relive the same day over and over again, and allows for some interesting twists on the formula. The Film never tires of absolutely tormenting Tree every chance it gets, and does a delicate job incorporating the visual motifs of the Slasher and Coming-of-Age genres. Some of the references and jokes are a little too meta for their own good, but they work really well within the knowing framework of the Film. I was originally worried Happy Death Day would be tame based on the teenager-friendly rating, but was delighted to see some of the violence get pretty gnarly and vicious in certain moments.
Where the Film stumbles is in its details and characterizations. When Happy Death Day is being played for perverse and macabre laughs, it is really effective and a lot of fun. But it fails to properly describe the characters around Tree. Due to the repetitive nature of the Film, all we get are superficial characterizations which only work in small doses. This does not hurt the Film initially, but when the Third Act hits and people start explaining their motivations, almost none of it rings true to what we know about these characters – mostly because every detail is treated so randomly and inconsequentially. Even Tree herself suffers from this, with haunting details about her past revealed quickly and then immediately forgotten. I was not expecting Oscar-caliber writing, but it makes it hard for Happy Death Day to make a lasting impression.
Israel Broussard and Shameless’ Ruby Modine get to have some fun as Tree’s late-night hookup Carter and roommate Lori respectively, but the Film belongs to Rothe. The relative newcomer (she played one of Emma Stone’s roommates in La La Land) owns every aspect of this role and jumps headfirst into every nightmare the Filmmakers plunge Tree into. She plays the unlikeable, conceited sorority bimbo almost too wonderfully, but does even better as the young woman we genuinely hope survives all of this turmoil and death. She taps into the same strength as the great final girls before her, and delivers a star-making performance. Expect great things in the future from this young talent.
Happy Death Day has some issues in its writing, but it is a lot of fun to watch from beginning to end. I am admittedly a big fan of the Groundhog Day concept that Hollywood keeps reusing, but this is one of the more unique entries into that growing subgenre. Couple that along with a star-making performance by Rothe, and you have the easiest film-watching plan for Friday the 13th you might ever get.
Universal Pictures Canada release HAPPY DEATH DAY in theatres on Friday, October 13, 2017.