Surprisingly entertaining, darkly funny horror romp worth a single viewing.
There’s something devilishly palatable about the plot to Happy Death Day. Seeing a girl relive her death while trying to solve her own murder is an interesting twist on the Groundhog Day trope, something director Christopher Landon exploits throughout this highly entertaining, occasionally sharply written slasher horror.
Tree (Jessica Rothe), a college student, must relive the day of her gruesome death over and over again. She realises she must use this loop to find out who’s trying to kill her.
Landon’s previous work isn’t exactly a glimmering portfolio; 2010’s Burning Palms should have been burned alive, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was a mildly intriguing if still staggeringly bland spin off, and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is a supremely low bro gory comedy without enough bite. He’s finally got himself a small hit with Happy Death Day. Don’t forget, he has the helping hand of the producer of Get Out, one of this generation’s best horrors, and The Purge, a mediocre start to a cracking franchise.
The key to what makes Happy Death Day more than Final Destination trash-esque nonsense is that it is completely self aware. The film starts off trying to be spooky, with the first kill producing a real impact. But as time marches on, Landon and writer Scott Lobdell unravel the movie to be a mightily cruel, sick joke that strives to entertain not just be shocking us, but by making us laugh. They certainly succeed, particularly in second act where Tree proactively goes after her killer, in a continuous stream of relentlessly violent, punky murders. It almost plays out like one of those ‘big family’ movies, where the kids are plotting a prank and keep getting caught – except here, instead of getting grounded, our heroine gets a knife through her head, a baseball bat to the skull, a bong to the neck etc.
It’s a smart move from the filmmakers, as the premise loses any credibility as a genuine freakfest. Accordingly, the writing is adjusted to suit this twisted, often unseen tone. Regretfully, it doesn’t always work. The chat between the college girls is relentlessly bitchy, painfully stupid and straight-up annoying, almost like someone gathered the writers of Mean Girls, Clueless and Bring It On and told them to go nuts. It’s clearly an attempt at some sort of satire, playing off the presumed immaturity and nastiness of particularly sorority girls. Sometimes it’s really funny, but in others, it feels so far out that it could be a spoof.
That being said, Jessica Rothe’s performance is a mixed bag. In the exhilarating chase scenes, she’s absolutely wonderful. Will she go down as a modern day horror icon? No, but does she make a competent effort at both a damsel and opponent? Yes. But when she’s given some time to herself, my god she is unlikeable. It could be argued that her strong-armed performance as a complete dick in the opening act makes it hard to warm to her, but her delivery of the admittedly eye-rolling dialogue later on doesn’t help fight her case. It’s not all just about death, death and death though, she does have a backstory – she doesn’t get on with her family. Similarly to last year’s The Shallows, that deeper part of the narrative is harder to buy in to when it’s not touched upon deeply enough, especially when there’s more fun waiting just round the corner.
Writing aside, the direction here is fantastic, if occasionally, even spectacular. Landon’s visual style and enthusiasm shines through every death scene. Each chase sequence has a kinetic energy and physicality that keeps you on your toes, with Landon often allowing us to see the pursuit in full scope, such as when Tree runs down a dimly lit hospital corridor, we can also see the killer getting closer and closer. Listen out in the cinema for whispers, “run, run, run, run, run”. If Landon did intend for this to be a truly scary horror, then he has failed. But the end product is definitely enjoyable, in a sort of breezy way that is best watched with friends and a few drinks. It’s the kind of film that teens will want to watch at sleepovers, and that is perfectly okay.
It’s fun, wickedly cheeky and ultimately entertaining. But, I wouldn’t want to relive it again.