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Happy Death Day

by Greg Vellante
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Oct 13, 2017
'Happy Death Day'
'Happy Death Day'  

The inherent joys of watching even the most canonical slasher films originate from elements that are bottom-of-the-barrel dumb. People make stupid decisions. People say unrealistic lines. It's this stupidity that often gets the victims within these films killed, in the most gloriously inventive yet impractical of ways. The sheer illogicality of the slasher genre is what makes it silly and fun and disposable, and it is indubitably the impetus for sequel after sequel and reboot after reboot when it comes to major franchises like "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween."

So, consider it a breath of fresh air when a movie like "Happy Death Day" comes along to restructure the mold, however slightly. The film follows a spoiled, narcissistic college student and sorority girl named Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) as she relives her birthday again and again, à la "Groundhog Day," only to be killed by the same masked murderer every single night. She wakes up screaming, always in the dorm room of an awkward, yet kind, boy named Carter (Israel Broussard), eventually realizing that she needs to solve her own murder and figure out who the killer is in order to break the repetitive rewind cycle of her existence.

The film does its due diligence in lining up an eclectic crew of suspects. Is it bitchy sorority house president, Danielle (Rachel Matthews)? Is it Tree's roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine), whose kind gestures are reciprocated only in nasty indifference by Tree? Is it Tree's father (Jason Bayle), whose birthday calls she keeps ignoring? Is it the slimy British medical professor (Charles Aitken) with whom Tree is having sex, or perhaps his jealous wife? There are even more suspects assembled throughout the duration of "Happy Death Day," which sails by in a slick 96-minute runtime that keeps you on your toes up until the final scene.

"Happy Death Day" has all the motions of a dumb, by-the-book slasher film, but it's hiding a self-aware intelligence beneath this ridiculous exterior. The movie owes a lot to the ancestries of both the slasher genre and "Groundhog Day," but for the most part it transcends these influence-based obligations rather than succumbing to the easy trappings that can arise with paying homage. It has a sly feminism to it and an even more interesting commentary, however slight, on rape culture. There's one scene in particular, which finds Tree being attacked by the killer in a bedroom during a party, and a drunk dude-bro type walks into the room. The killer is on top of Tree while she struggles and screams "Help me!" to the man who has just entered the room. He just gives a drunken cheer and leaves the room. A handful of audience members chuckled, but I do believe the intended point of this particular gag was gravely grasped by those who got it.

Visually, the film is a big fan of framing its frightened protagonist in the confines of off-kilter, dimly lit hallways as she attempts to outrun her killer, and there's crafty cutting throughout (including a playful montage set to Demi Lovato's "Confident"). Nothing overtly special here in terms of aesthetics, but it's not an ugly film to watch. My only complaint is that this PG-13 affair is utterly bloodless and fails to excel in the excessive gore and grossness that accompanies most films within the slasher genre. (It cuts to Tree jolting awake every time she is killed).

I can't help but think what an R-rated version of "Happy Death Day" would have amounted to. There's an abundance of promise on display here that is often reached, but the movie equally falls short in a lot of areas. It's hard to become the new blood of a particular genre when you don't have any blood to begin with, but "Happy Death Day" still has plenty of life to it despite breaking the first rule of slasher club in its gore-free execution. Come to think of it, the film breaks a lot of rules, but I think that's what makes it so endearingly different and aggressively entertaining, despite its countless flaws.

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