Tuesday, October 23, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Happy Death Day

Okay, there’s no two ways around this. For all that it was the pitch that persuaded Blumhouse Productions to sign the cheque, for all that it was high concept around which the script is constructed like a house of cards with the finest of Swiss watches at the heart of it, and for all that every frickin’ review of the film that’s ever been written or will ever be written immediately utilises it as an entry point to facilitate discussion, there’s no way I can tender my own review without reaching for that exact same pop-culture comparison.

‘Happy Death Day’ is the ‘Groundhog Day’ of the stalk ‘n’ slash genre.

Self-obsessed sorority sister Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes on her birthday in the dorm room of nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard) after a drunken bender; during the walk of not-quite-shame (nothing happened between them) back to her sorority house, a series of events that may or may not be important occur; on her return, she interacts spikily with roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) and sorority queen bitch Danielle (Rachel Matthews); as her day progresses, she meets married lover and university lecturer Charles (Gregory Butler), attends a house party, is menaced by a knife-wielding figure in a mask, and is viciously murdered. At which point she wakes in the dorm room of nice guy Carter; it’s her birthday.

When ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ used the ‘Groundhog Day’ formula in the context of a futuristic war story, it worked through small permutations in Cage (Tom Cruise)’s day from hell, making him jump through any number of (time) loops in his quest to make contact with Emily Blunt’s Angel of Verdun and therefore kickstart the non-timey-wimey* part of the plot. By comparison, the only part of Tree’s day that is set in stone is the walk from Carter’s room, and even then her response to the pre-ordained sequence of events changes as the film progresses, from ice-queen ignorance of the world around her, to carefree disregard (in the film’s funniest and most lurid moment), to interaction with those around her. Beyond this, Tree almost immediately begins making changes to the structure of her, using every bit of foreknowledge to firstly try to evade her death, then to solve it, and finally to fight back against it.

‘Groundhog Day’ had a clever script, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ a not-as-clever-as-it-thought-it-was script. ‘Source Code’ and ‘Looper’, which play with similar conceits, have scripts that almost trip over themselves in their attempt to play in the ouroborus sandbox. ‘Happy Death Day’ has a script (by Scott Lobdell) that is pure joy. And if you think that describing the script of what, for all its sci-fi elements and its comedic moments, is essentially a slasher as “pure joy” is pushing it about, then all I can say is watch the thing and prepare to spend an hour and a half feeling like you want to stand up and applaud, while a big cheesy grin wipes itself across your face and unabashedly stays there.

As a slasher, ‘Happy Death Day’ is perfectly on point and a hell of a lot smarter than it needs to be. As a variation on the theme of ‘Groundhog Day’, ditto. As a comedy, ditto. As a character study (yes, really), ditto.

Which brings me to the other ace in the film’s hand: its leading lady. Jessica Rothe owns ‘Happy Death Day’ in the way that the then-unheard-of Kate Winslet owned ‘Heavenly Creatures’ or the then-unheard-of Emily Blunt owned ‘My Summer of Love’. “Star-making performance” is an overused old saw, but damned if it isn’t the perfect description of Rothe’s turn as Tree.

Christopher Landon’s direction is also spot on. He handles the comedy in refreshingly cynical fashion, gets his attractive cast playing off against each other in fine style (Modine and Matthews get some maliciously memorable moments of their own), and pulls out all the stops when it comes to the horror tropes. Tree’s first date with death – an Argento-esque set-up involving an underpass, a masked figure and a music box – is properly creepy, while elsewhere there’s some cat ‘n’ mouse in an underground parking garage and a desperate chase through hospital corridors.

Ultimately, everything ties together satisfyingly and seamlessly, with only one thing unresolved: why Tree got stuck in the time loop to begin with. A sequel, due out next year – and with director and principle cast returning – promises to explain why. I’m not entirely sure that it needs to.

*Sorry. ‘Doctor Who’ fan.

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