You know, before sitting down to write this review, I thought I’d spend a little time trying to work out if 1993’s Groundhog Day is in fact the seminal original piece of cinema that so many people seem to believe. Can it really be the first film to introduce the cinematic world to the concept of “time-loops?”
Turns out it might not be!
According to history, in 1990 there was the release of 12:01, a 30 minute short film all about a man stuck in a time-loop. Starring Kurtwood Smith (of RoboCop and That ’70s Show fame) it actually ended up being nominated for an Academy Award.
Interestingly though, the writers and producers of that short film felt it was clear that the basic concept of Groundhog Day was plagiarised from their work, and tried taking legal action. Obviously it didn’t get anywhere, as demonstrated by the dozens of time-loop films released over the next 24 years (with 4 of them in 2017 alone!)
So my point in starting this review with an utterly extraneous piece of trivia is that, when it comes to Happy Death Day… An original story, this ain’t.
Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is your typically bitchy sorority girl. After a night of alcoholic indulgence, she wakes up on the morning of her birthday in the bedroom of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard); a fellow classmate.
She then goes about her day, which involves insulting her roommate (Ruby Modine); having an affair with her married professor (Charles Aitken); and generally being spiteful to everyone. But as the day ends, she finds herself being chased and attacked by a mask-wearing manic.
Though said encounter ends in her death, she suddenly wakes up safe and sound in Carter’s bed, the morning of her birthday once again.
Tree is forced to relive this day over and over again, each loop ending with her meeting a sticky end. But on Carter’s advice, she takes this chance to do the impossible and investigate her own murder in the hope that she might escape this repeating hell.
Coming from the pen of Scott Lobdell (in amazingly what seems to be his first proper feature length film), Happy Death Day (HDD) is not shy about its Groundhog Day influences, even going as far as to directly poke fun at the similarities. Rather it does what all good movies do and take a familiar concept while twisting / bending it into something new.
At first it’s difficult to explain why HHD is a far better exploration of time-loops than, say, this year’s Marlon Wayans-led Naked. But it soon becomes apparent that the use of mystery is what helps set this story apart and above. In the same way the audience desires to know the identity of the bomber in Source Code, it’s hard not to get swept up in HHD‘s central mystery of who the killer is and why he’s killing Tree.
Much of the credit must be given to the cast, with Rothe making a wonderful lead as she takes us on a believable transformation from Grade-A bitch to charming and root-able hero. Her performance is honestly as good, if not better, than the similar journey Tom Cruise’s character undergoes in Edge of Tomorrow.
In fact all the actors do well in their roles, with a special mention for the head sorority sister played by Rachel Matthews. Making Mean Girls‘ Regina George look like a nun, Matthew’s energetic performance ends up making her character one of the funniest of the cast.
Comedy actually turns out to be one of the highlights of the film, with director Christopher B. Landon (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) going to much effort to carefully balance the laughs with the horror. It’s a fine line to tread, but he manages to pull it off.
That said, this is not a particularly new approach to horror. Most of the deaths are of the “stabby-stabby” kind, never once veering into the more imaginative, over-the-top deaths of Final Destination or the Saw movies. And if you’re looking to be scared, then you might want to look elsewhere as, apart from a few jumps, there’s not a lot threatening to keep you awake at night.
Depending on what your experience is of sci-fi and horror, Happy Death Day might feel like a familiar walk in the park. And I agree. It’s the same park and even the same destination. But it’s not the same journey.
Instead HDD takes us on a winding and twisting tour, unique in its own way, and leads to an incredibly enjoyable film that could honestly end up being one of the most memorable films of 2017.