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This was a horror film that I was excited to see, if only because it was a ‘soft’ horror film, and played on the premise that is most ubiquitous with Groundhog Day. It is such a well-worn premise that it is often difficult to put an original spin on things, and yet what makes Happy Death Day so enjoyable and original is that it takes aspects of everyday college life (as cliché as that may be), and implements them into the story in such a way that not only is it rewarding to watch, but you’re also on board with what is happening because if you’ve been through college/university at any point in your life (or even if you’re in the midst of going through it right now), then there’s a chance that you’ll be able to empathise with Theresa ‘Tree’ Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), at least to some extent. In case you need anymore convincing, Happy Death Day‘s title is essentially a spin on the universally celebrated phrase ‘Happy birthday’, yet they substituted the ‘birth’ for ‘death’, because in this take on the premise of reliving the same day over and over again, Tree has to figure out who is killing her on her birthday, and more importantly: why.
The beauty of films such as this one is that if they are done well, the story is slowly unravelled before your eyes over a relatively short period of time (in this case, 96 minutes). But because Happy Death Day is such an enjoyable film, I wouldn’t have minded had it gone on for longer. We first see Tree as she wakes up with a blinding hang over-induced-headache, and little recollection of the previous night’s events. She then goes throughout the day, noticing everything that happens and not really registering them: after all, she is hung over, and doesn’t really care about the world. Nor does she announce that it’s her birthday: her roommate, Lori Spengler (Ruby Modine) finds out because she had a peek at Tree’s driving licence. Then, at the end of the day, after a succession of points that we become privy to throughout the day, Tree ends up dead… and wakes up with her mobile (cellphone) ringing again, in the same unfamiliar bed, in the same unfamiliar room, with the same unfamiliar guy standing up from underneath his desk. We do learn that his name is Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) and that he is a genuine, down-to-earth guy who doesn’t want to hurt anyone, Tree included. In fact, he’s so nice, he doesn’t even take advantage of her in her drunken state.
Again, Tree goes through the motions, believing everything to have been a dream, and that she is merely suffering from déjà vu. But again, she gets killed, and again, she wakes up in Carter’s dorm. On this third go round, she tries something different at the end of the day, thus dragging out her inevitable fate. But again, her day ends the same way: death. I’m going to give credit to both Rothe and director Christopher Landon here, as they work together to produce a damningly realistic portrayal of a panic attack that ultimately culminates in Tree needing what most if not everyone needs during a panic attack: someone to help them through it. This is crucial, for it leads on to the next part of the story, as Tree gets the idea to try and figure out just who is killing her. She has unlimited lives, so she may as well use them. But screenwriter Scott Lobdell isn’t going to make it that easy – not for the audience, and certainly not for Tree – and it takes far longer than you would expect for Tree to figure out who is behind her murder. I often say that everything in writing needs to have its place, otherwise there’s no point in it being in the story at all. This is perhaps most important with these kinds of films. Every little detail is crucial in some shape or form, no matter how incongruous they may seem at the time.
The reason Happy Death Day works is because it is fun, enjoyable, and a thrill-ride with lots of twists and turns that all coalesce together to form an exciting and ultimately tense conclusion. The film takes you on a journey of suspense, mystery, and death (multiple deaths), and along the way it peels back the façade that Tree has put in place, feeding you tiny pieces of information every now and again in between the bigger moments, just enough to keep you interested, on your toes, and guessing. It is one of those films that works as a standalone, so why we’re getting a sequel is beyond me, but I’m happy that we get to spend more time with the characters nonetheless, as Tree was complex, intriguing, and above all: human. She was authentically written, believable, and a bitch, but in such a way that she was easily forgiven, as you do come to learn why she is the way she has turned out to be. I would have enjoyed this movie all the more had it not been for the cinema experience whereby there were three guys who thought it would be a good idea to sit on the row behind me, kick the seats further along to make said row vibrate, and walk in and out of the screen as and when they pleased. Their disruptiveness and disregard was damaging, their lack of cinema etiquette abhorrent, and I do wish that a cinema employee had come and removed them from the screen if they had seen the live CCTV feeds. Having said that, Happy Death Day was a fun horror film, one that you can relive over and over again, but with perhaps more enjoyment than Tree does.
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