HAPPY DEATH DAY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Christopher Landon

Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello, Phi Vu.

Groundhog Day with a killer twist?

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In this clever teen horror film that pays tribute to the slasher films of the 80s, a college student is brutally murdered, but gets to relive that day repeatedly until she can uncover the identity of her killer.

Tree Gelman (played by Jessica Rothe) is a spoiled, selfish and narcissistic party girl who wakes up in a strange dorm room, hung over after a big night out. She makes her way across campus to her own sorority house where she immediately clashes with her bitchy and prim house queen Danielle (Rachel Matthews). She is reminded by her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine, from Shameless, etc), who presents her with a cupcake, that it is her birthday, a fact that she greets with disdain as her birthday serves as an annual reminder of a dark time in her life. She is also estranged from her father, whose birthday calls she ignores. Tree progresses through her routine and prepares to head out to a party that night. But on her way to the party she is waylaid by a stranger wearing a creepy babyface mask who stabs her to death. Suddenly, Tree wakes up and must relive the whole day over again. And again…; until she can identify the killer, prevent her death and stop this cycle.

As she relives the day again and again she tweaks her encounters, and looks for clues to help identify her mysterious attacker. She begins to take charge of her own destiny. She even enlists the help of the good-natured and shy Carter (Israel Broussard, from The Bling Ring, etc), the student whose dorm room she wakes up in, to help her with her investigation. Every day she has to explain her situation to the bemused Carter. Following his advice, she draws up a list of suspects who would want to kill her – a long list that includes her roommate Lori, her professor with whom she is having an affair, a former boyfriend, and anyone else she has peed off with her attitude.

Comic book writer Scott Lobdell deftly mixes tropes of the slasher genre with some of the usual cliches of the college campus comedy – Sorority Row meets Mean Girls via Scream, if you will – mixed with the DNA of time loop films like Edge Of Tomorrow, Before I Fall and Source Code. He works in a few red herrings and some misdirection that will keep audiences guessing until the end. His script also has the same sort of self-awareness that drove the Scream films. Masked killers have been a terrifying staple of the horror genre since the 80s with the likes of Friday The 13th’s Jason Voorhees, Halloween’s Michael Myers, and even the killer from Scream, but somehow here the killer lacks that same malevolent edge that drove those superior films.

The casting of Rothe also works a treat. This is a breakout role for the actress who has mainly been stuck in B grade tv series like Mary + Jane, etc, or in small roles in films like La La Land. She is on screen the entire duration of the film, and the premise needed a strong central character to hold our attention and make us empathise with her. When the film starts, Tree is not a particularly likeable person, but as the film progresses she grows in confidence and strength and slowly strips away her hardened, cynical veneer. Rothe brings a wonderful mix of bitchiness, strength, vulnerability and energy to her performance, and although her character is put through an emotional and physical wringer she is clearly having a lot of fun here. There is also good chemistry between Rothe and Broussard.

Director Christopher Landon is best known for his work on the Paranormal Activity franchise, but thankfully here he has forgone the found footage aesthetic and opted for a more conventional narrative structure. He also tones down the gore and bloodletting here preferring to emphasise the campier elements of the plotting as he stages some inventive kills. The repetition of Tree’s day never gets tired or boring and Landon occasionally subverts our expectations. With each iteration of her day, Tree grows as a person, much like Bill Murray’s character in the classic Groundhog Day, as she tries to atone for past mistakes and insults and turn her life around. The film actually works a treat, especially if you are prepared to go with the flow and don’t attempt to over analyse its central plot machinations.

Happy Death Day is the latest film from horror studio Blum House, but it incorporates elements of comedy into the mix. It will feel familiar to audiences, and not just because of its central premise, but because Landon also cleverly delivers a slightly self-aware take on the well-worn tropes of the slasher genre. And with a brisk running time of 96 minutes it never outstays its welcome.
★★★

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