I love movies. Sometimes, due either to mental exhaustion or decision fatigue, I go through a period where I’m just not interested. Recently I’ve been relaxing by watching Ellen Rose play through Dark Souls, a video game where the bosses are hard as nails to defeat and death forces you to meticulously work your way back to where you were in the beginning.
This is the experience sorority sister Tree (Jessica Rothe) has in the 2017’s Happy Death Day, unabashed riff on Groundhog Day. On her way to a frat party, a killer wearing the mask of the school mascot stabs Tree to death. She wakes up again in the same morning, memories intact. Since Tree’s day began with the status-conscious Tree doing a walk of shame from a strange boy’s dorm room (gasp), repeating the experience gives her an opportunity to reevaluate more than just her own murder.
Much of the negative criticism for Happy Death Day comes from people disappointed in the bloodless kills. Unlike most slashers of the Eighties, this film focuses on the victim instead of the implacable baby-mask killer. We are not hanging around to watch intolerable jerks get what they deserve. Instead, the movie is a puzzle. Who is the killer? Why is the killer so determined to murder Tree? The mystery, supernatural overtones, and anonymous gloved murderer all make this seem much more like giallo, slasher’s Italian ancestor.
Slashers trade on the characterization of the murderer. Happy Death Day makes Tree the focus. Jessica Rothe gives off a strong Kaley Cuoco vibe, starting out as a mean girl and pivoting, through every repeat of her birthday, into a less egotistical and more confident woman. She can communicate a lot with her face. One of my favorite scenes is when Tree learns Carter (Israel Broussard), the guy she woke up with, did not actually take advantage of her being blackout drunk. Watching her cruise from jaded to smitten in a few seconds is just amazing. A lesser performer — and director — would probably have done this with exposition. Here, it’s done with acting.
There’s great makeup work, too. Tree’s face changes as her character softens, in part because of the aforementioned acting. But also because the style of her makeup drifts into more natural and less put-together territory.
Christopher Landon, writer and director of several Paranormal Activity sequels and Michael Landon’s son, directed Happy Death Day. The film had major distribution through long-time genre powerhouse Universal, earning $125 million on a budget of under $5 million. It certainly has a Hollywood feel, complete with Touching Moments and a redemptive character arc. Thanks to the pacing, editing, and acting, these moments don’t overwhelm the story.
If you’re a regular reader, you know “high-grossing movies made in the last five years” is not really in my sweet-spot for movies. This one… well, I watched it. And then I watched it again two hours later. I can’t remember the last time I did that. Consider this a strong recommendation, even if you don’t like slasher movies. It’s not really a slasher.