Review by LL Soares
NOTE: This column first appeared on the Cinema Knife Fight website in 2017. I’m posting it this week because the sequel, HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U comes out this Friday.
The first time you’re exposed to a gimmick, it can be a lot of fun. I know that I really enjoyed the Bill Murray movie GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) when it first came out, with Murray as Phil, a weatherman who lives the same day over and over again. When other movies used the same gimmick, it wasn’t always a bad thing. I thought EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014), was one of Tom Cruise’s more entertaining recent movies, where he lived the same day over and over, to learn how to defeat aliens who had invaded Earth.
But gimmicks can get tired pretty quickly.
The new movie HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017) takes the gimmick and puts a slasher spin on it, as sorority girl Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds herself waking up to the same day over and over. Except, at the end of the day, she is killed by someone in a baby mask, and she wakes up and it starts all over again, with her knowing she’s going to die, and her doing her damndest to change the course of history.
When Tree wakes up, she’s in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), who seems like a nice enough guy. Tree, however, is kind of a creep and treats him badly from the get go. She drank so much the night before, she doesn’t even remember how she got in his bed. She quickly gets dressed, runs back to her sorority house, and goes about her day, mostly engaging in bad behavior. Oh yeah, and it’s her birthday.
When a guy in that baby mask (it’s supposed to be the school mascot, but I never saw the actual name of their football team, was it the Big Babies?) gets her alone at night and stabs her to death, you figure that’s it. She’s dead. But no, she wakes up all in Carter’s dorm room. And it all begins again.
Tree catches on pretty quick and figures out what’s happening to her. She starts to treat it almost as a game, as she keeps changing her behavior throughout the day, trying to get a different outcome. But no matter what she tries, that masked killer somehow tracks her down.
But she does learn with the repetition. She begins to realize how much of a jerk she’s been and starts trying to make better decisions, and be a nicer person. She realizes how good a guy Carter is, and confides in him about what’s going on (of course, the next time she wakes up, he’s forgotten everything and she has to start all over again).
She does eventually figure out who her killer is, and starts devising a way to change her fate, so she does learn from her mistakes. But, once the mysteries begin to get solved, we still have no clue why she’s reliving the same day. It’s not like her murder is some huge supernatural event that deserves all this repetition. In fact, the answers are pretty mundane. And yet, she relives it all anyway.
To be honest, I thought the plot of HAPPY DEATH DAY was kind of lame, and even though there is some humor about it all (including a conversation about Bill Murray’s GROUNDHOG DAY at one point), I found the concept getting tired by the halfway point.
The only thing that saves this movie from being a complete waste of time is the lead performance by Jessica Rothe, who previously had supporting roles in movies like WOLVES and LA LA LAND (both 2016). Rothe is more than capable of carrying the film and keeping us watching, no matter how tedious the storyline gets. It’s the kind of performance that can lead to bigger things, but frankly, I’d be more interested in seeing her future work than seeing this movie again. With its “same day over and over” plot, I already feel like I’ve sat through it multiple times.
The rest of the cast is okay, including Broussard (previously in the movie THE BLING RING, 2013, and also on the show FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, 2016) as sweet guy Carter; Rachel Matthews (making her film debut here) as mean girl Danielle Bouseman, who is the head of Tree’s sorority house (and quite good in her scenes); Billy Slaughter (previously in TRUMBO, 2015, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and BAD MOMS, both 2016) as Dr Winter, a married professor Tree’s sleeping with;, and Ruby Modine (on the Showtime series SHAMELESS) as Lori Spengler, Tree’s roommate.
It’s directed by Christopher Landon, who also gave us PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES (2014), probably the weakest installment of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise, and SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE (2015). He does a decent enough job here. Scott Lobdell, who wrote the script, previously wrote mostly for comics (including the X-MEN titles). The script has its moments, but overall is kind of so-so. Actress Jessica Rothe transcends the material, however, and is very watchable.
As I mentioned, I really think this role will get her noticed and lead to better things.
But I’m kind of hoping this movie doesn’t do too well, because if it gets a sequel, I’ll have to sit through this plot again! And again. And again. It’s like cinematic OCD.
And once was enough.
I give HAPPY DEATH DAY two knives, mostly for Jessica Rothe’s performance. I’m looking to seeing her in other things, as long as they’re not HAPPY DEATH DAY 2, HAPPY DEATH DAY 3, and so on and so on.
© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares