Ugh… didn’t we do a bullshit GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) movie earlier this year with BEFORE I FALL (2017)?! Now we need a slasher-horror version?! What’s next?! An action movie with Liam Neeson… actually… that sounds awesome. We couldn’t do that instead?!
The story looks like it’s about this young woman who is murdered on her birthday by a killer in a baby-face mask. She relives the day over and over, desperate to figure out who’s trying to kill her.
Here’s the cast. Starring is Jessica Rothe, known for LA LA LAND (2016). She, like the rest of the cast, is a jamboree of unknowns.
Now for the crew. Directing, we have Christopher Landon, known for SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE (2015) and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES (2014). Penning the screenplay is Scott Lobdell, known for 1 episode of TV show GODZILLA (1998 – 2001), a story credit for MAN OF THE HOUSE (2005), and 5 “created by” credits of episodes for TV show X-MEN (1992 – 1997). Composing the score is ever-amazing Bear McCreary, known for REBEL IN THE RYE (2017), KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM (2013), and STEP UP 3D (2010). Finally, the cinematographer is Toby Oliver, known for GET OUT (2017), THE DARKNESS (2016), and the upcoming INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018).
Overall, this movie better not take itself too seriously and secretly be a horror-comedy, or else I might lose it. If it does, all this movie will do is make this protagonist dumb as hell, make repeated mistakes or never get creative in progressing what she’s supposed to find out. The best this movie will offer by way of comedy is self-awareness humor, but I highly doubt it’ll be that good. I’m honestly not expecting anything good at all. This is yet another movie that got released too early and should have saved itself for a January/February release.
This is my honest opinion of: HAPPY DEATH DAY
Today is a special day for Theresa “Tree” Gelbman: it’s her birthday! But she doesn’t seem to be in a celebratory mood. In fact, she’s very mean-spirited about it toward everyone she comes into contact with. Carter (Israel Broussard), who’s had a crush on her for some time, her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), her father David (Jason Bayle), just about everyone. She’s even having an affair with her school professor Gregory (Charlie Aitken), who’s married to a loving wife. But at the end of the night, on her way to a party, she finds herself in a tunnel and is attacked by a person in a mask and murdered. But here’s the thing, she doesn’t stay dead. In fact, she wakes up experiencing the same day again and despite doing a couple of things differently, she is murdered again by the same masked killer. Freaking out over why this is happening, Tree eventually sets out to try and figure out who is killing her and put a stop to this repeating nightmare.
Objectively speaking, no, it’s not a very good movie, but personally… I kind of liked it. So I owe this movie an apology from my initial impressions.
Well, let me start with the negatives as I would enjoy talking about the positives a lot more. The cardinal sin is the first twenty some odd minutes where the movie takes itself way too seriously. I mean, the first day is fine. It’s all basically character introduction until Tree’s killed for the first time. But here’s where the movie frustrated me: the second day. She wakes up in that dorm, obviously questioning just how insanely similar the circumstances are, but confusingly bounces from acknowledging that this day is repeating, as well as thinking that it’s a dream. She’s pointing out where the aspirin is, but is still late for her first class. She’s trying to seek help from her professor, but she still slaps on the same outfit for her party. You see what I’m getting at? Her reactions aren’t consistent. I can believe that someone in a loop like this would think the first day was some kind of crazy, realistic dream, but when a pattern of familiarity crops up, paranoia would sink in and I’d be doing everything different. She eventually does, but it also gets a little ridiculous that she continues to scream in agonizing fear as the murderer gets her. You’d think the experience of constantly getting killed would get more repetitive and annoying than frightening after a time.
One of my biggest pet peeves about movies like this is that there’s always a syncing issue with timing and actions. What I mean is this: for argument sake, let’s say the time it takes between Tree to wake up in bed to when Ryan (Phi Vu) comes through the door takes exactly one minute. No matter how many times Tree wakes up, that time should never shift. She should never be able to oversleep, or wake up too early. It’s always on the dot. Yet, there are some loops where she wakes up and goes to that door early, but Ryan will still be at the door as if the whole minute had gone by. See what I’m getting at? If Tree goes to the door early, Ryan shouldn’t be at the door early as well. The events outside of Tree’s personal actions shouldn’t be playing out any differently. Most loops are okayish about it, but in a story like this, continuity cannot be an issue and it is here. The same sort of goes for certain lines of dialog. For example, when Tree comes back to her sorority house and goes into her room with Lori in it, the power eventually goes out and Lori sarcastically remarks, “Our tuition dollars at work.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I come up with a fun line that I want to say like a cool catch phrase, it’s usually because I’m waiting to say it. Fine if you’re just that clever in the moment, but it has to be in that moment. In another loop, Lori won’t even be in the room, the power will go off, and she remarks with the exact same line with the exact same fluctuations in her voice, despite a difference in circumstance. That sort of thing does bother me a little.
And considering what is presented to the audience in the beginning of the film, it’s a huge wonder why there’s so many people who are trying to be nice and be friends with Tree. Before the events of the story, she was still not a kind person. Why is Carter still pining after someone who doesn’t like him? Why was her previous fling taking their one date so personally when she doesn’t call or text him back? Why does Lori go so far out of her way to bake a cupcake from scratch for her birthday when the two aren’t at all close?
Other problems include Tree finding a car and having the means to run over her killer and not taking the many opportunities. Trying to get herself arrested and using excuses like she’s high and drunk, but not once saying, “I also stole this car.” And final pet peeve: finding yourself in an impossible situation and trying to tell someone about it, hoping they’ll believe you, and they don’t. Well… no shit!
Thankfully, and surprisingly, the movie does pick itself up around the middle.
For one thing, I think Rothe sells this movie like a champ. She brings an infectious energy that you can’t help but love. When Tree is frustrated, we feel her frustration. When she’s being a bitch, we don’t like her. When she’s cheering, we cheer with her. When she cracks a joke, we laugh. When she has a bad-ass moment, I challenge you to not smile at it. But more importantly, when she’s trying to be sincere, we believe her. We feel for her and connect with her. Rothe is clearly having a blast playing this role and I thoroughly enjoy her performance. I really hope to see her in more movies in the future that really showcase her talent. I wouldn’t mind seeing her in a comedy either. Whatever it is, consider me on board.
Carter was also a decently written guy. As crazy as Tree’s situation sounds, and he never sounds 100 percent convinced of any of it, he’s still open enough to offer his advice as to what her next course of action should be and how to resolve it. He shows genuine concern for her and even puts his own life in jeopardy for her. He’s helpful, contributes to her situation, and it’s hard to not like him and want to see him end up with Tree by the end.
For all intents and purposes, the movie is at its best when it isn’t taking itself too seriously. When Tree is setting out, spying on all of the suspects that she believes is trying to kill her, it’s a montage with an upbeat, fun kind of music playing that makes you laugh in some parts. And like I commented before, this is also where she sees her deaths as more inconvenient than scary. She spies on someone watching gay porn and spies on another with night-vision goggles. I have no idea where she’d get those, but the movie is clearly having fun with itself and that’s where a bulk of the enjoyability comes from. It doesn’t last forever, and it reels itself back into serious mode, but by this point, even that stuff gets better, so I wasn’t complaining too much.
One of the more interesting aspects that I wish got a little more development was how after each death, she’d retain her injuries in some fashion. For example, if she died from getting stabbed in the stomach, she’ll wake up and her stomach will hurt. Or, if she died from getting bludgeoned to the head with a baseball bat, she’ll wake up with a head injury that will cause her to pass out. There’s even instances where her legs will hurt a lot. I thought this was an incredibly unique spin on this idea.
My only issue with her injuries being retained after each death is that the idea isn’t pushed far enough. By the final two loops, we’ve established that she has brain trauma and injured legs. You’d think she’d be limping, or her vision would be blurred or distorted, something to add more difficulty in her confrontations with Tombs (Rob Mello) and Lori. And why wouldn’t the poisoning have any affect on her? Maybe the poisoned cupcake could have given her some breathing problems or something. For such an interesting idea that gave off such an intense sense of danger, the movie doesn’t roll with it as much as it really should have.
What I deeply appreciate is that Tree isn’t being a bitch to everyone for no reason. Her birthday is a particularly hard day for her as it’s also the day that her mom died. She’s acting out, still grieving and for understandable reasons. And Tree does have an arch. She does eventually see just how mean-spirited she’s been and does feel guilty about it later on, trying to right her wrongs. She eventually sees the kindness in Carter and is touched by his sincerity, eventually falling for him in a fairly organic way. I liked their eventual budding relationship.
And also, Tree doesn’t wind up a saint by the end. I feel like any other movie, she’d be such a good person that it would make you nauseous. But no, she goes outside and steals the sunglasses from the emo kid she passes by in a moment of celebratory triumph over what she knows she can do to get herself out of her loops. But as opposed to what she was like in the beginning of the film, she goes from a totally unlikable bitch, to a likable bitch. Considering everything that she’s been through, I’d say she earned those shades anyway.
Finally, I give props to the twist. Okay, I’m not exactly gasping at the whole “it was Lori” thing, but I definitely didn’t see the poisoned-cupcake thing. When Tree killed Tombs and that cupcake candle got blown out, and she woke up in another loop, I legitimately didn’t know how she got there. Kudos, Mister Lobdell. I didn’t predict that.
Overall, this movie’s got some major problems. Problems that I definitely can’t overlook. But I can’t deny that I enjoyed this movie much better than I thought I would. I’m not entirely sure if I would own it on Blu-Ray, but I would see this again. A few more times, even. It’s got a great lead actress, some fun and interesting spins on this idea, and some well-written moments. I can’t call it a scary film, but I think it’s worth checking out if you’ve been interested. This death day was much happier than I expected.
My honest rating for HAPPY DEATH DAY: a strong 3/5