Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of staring at the light going on in the fridge, wondering how you went from planning your next opus of achievement to living through the events of a less interesting Groundhog Day without Bill Murray to keep you entertained through it. As of the time that I am writing this, we are still under mass quarantine and by now, I think everyone is getting a bit complain-y. A bit bored and having a bit of a whine over either being at home or having to continue to go through the motions at their service jobs while people continue to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with coughing all over the item that they are taking fifteen goddamn minutes to inspect while going down the wrong aisle at the grocery store and why not bring you kids with you because they are definitely known to never ever put their faces on anything or lick stuff when you’re not looking. I had to get groceries this week and, if you couldn’t tell, this has caused me a bit of frustration. And it turns out that I’m not alone.
From the tales I’m being told by family and friends as well as the general feeling of most of my online interactions, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this entire situation is making a lot of us rather grumpy. And how could it not? We’re a world accustomed to being able to do whatever we want whenever we want and the idea that we can’t is a bit difficult for us. Gone are the days when shops aren’t open at all hours, even on weekends and holidays. Even for people who grew up in the days when nothing was open on the weekends and you could count on only a very select few businesses that might be open beyond five in the evening, it’s a weird reality for many to be stuck at home, entertaining themselves. Yes, there’s plenty that we can do in that time. There’s always cleaning that no one wants to do and reading of books and watching of Netflix shows and other manners of banal amusements but that only lasts for so long before it begins to get old. By now, our lives in quarantine have hit a bit of a routine and, if you are like many of the people I know, it’s started to feel like every day can be exchanged with the previous one or the one that comes after and you probably wouldn’t notice. Now, if you are struggling with this, there are ways to contend with it and if you are starting to feel it affecting your mental health, it’s time to contact a friend or even a local health provider to get some perspective and some assistance if need be. If it’s not that drastic, however, and you just really want to feel some relief from your boredom, let’s take a look at someone who is having a far worse neverending day than you are. We’re going to be following the journey of Tree and her Happy Death Day!
Released in the fall of 2017 by Blumhouse Productions, this is another newer film that I’m reviewing. I did consider going with something else because I do try to keep my reviews on here to things that I don’t hear getting that much love out there in the greater world. That said, I remember when this came out and while it still have a good reception for the time, it was also out at the same time as that one highly anticipated horror remake that a few people had been talking about pretty much constantly since about August. That would, of course, be the long awaited remake of the film It, and despite the fact that the movie came out well before Happy Death Day, it lingered in theatres for one of the longer runs that I can remember in recent years. While this certainly didn’t tank the film at all, I would argue that I don’t think that sitting next to the highest grossing horror movie of the year and one that would go on to be the highest grossing horror film of all time (as confirmed recently by Forbes) exactly allowed this film that came after it to get all the shine it necessarily deserved. I’m not going to go so far as to say that it’s the best film or even the better film of the two but if we look at the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, you’ll see it got a good old middle of the road reception and I think this quirky, cute and charming slasher flick deserves a second look from a few people.
Happy Death Day dives right into the thick of things and introduces us to our less than stellar main character, Tree, played to perfection by Jessica Rothe. That name, if you were wondering, would be short for Theresa but in some ways, Tree is more appropriate as we shall see. This opening is actually pretty awesome because of the details and you’ll be able to appreciate them a lot as the film continues. As to what is going on, the very first scene of the movie lets us know that it’s Tree’s birthday and she’s not only hungover but also not wanting to talk to her father. Waking up in a college dorm room with a person that you wouldn’t call a model, she is less than impressed at the implication that she may or may not have hooked up with the stuttering nerd that’s in the room with her. Bitchy but rather unaffected by her morning, she is accosted by various stereotypical elements of campus life before returning to her sorority house, wherein she blows off her roommate’s attempt to give her a cupcake and makes her way to class. After mostly not paying attention to her lecture, she meets up with the professor after class where it’s revealed that they’re having an affair that is barely being kept hidden from his wife. From here, Tree attends to her typical day, mostly excelling in being a massive bitch to everyone before that night where she is going off to what’s supposed to be a surprise birthday party for her. On her way to the party, however, she gets stalked by a person in a mascot mask (apparently the school is the Babies?) who eventually finds her and stabs her to death.
And from here we enter round two. Tree wakes up and lives the exact same day over again, only she is fully aware that she got killed the day before. It doesn’t take her long to start to freak out about it as she knows that at the end of the day, someone is going to try to kill her. Going through the motions, she is a bit less bitchy this time around, but that’s mostly on account of her trying to figure out how the hell she managed to wake up and experience the same day over again. The time of the party comes and Tree decides that the culprit was probably the route she took to get to the festivities. I mean, no one could actually be wanting to kill her, despite the fact that she is horrible to everyone she meets. No, it’s definitely a matter of needing to get a few more steps in, and so that takes care of that. Taking a different path, this time she gets to the party only to get killed once again. Round three begins and now Tree is getting a little sick of the birthday ring tone on her phone and also getting a little concerned that maybe someone really is trying to off her. The problem is that she is fully aware that she’s unlikeable and everyone knows it’s her birthday so that only leaves an entire university campus with a motive who could have attended her party. The other issue is that the killer is pretty intent on making sure she ends up dead and how she dies in each round isn’t fixed. It’s also established a few deaths in that she’s getting weaker each time she wakes up so if she doesn’t figure out who is killing her, her death may become permanent soon.
To start off, the premise is fantastic, but we kind of knew that already. I know there might be some out there who are itching to scream the words Groundhog Day rip off (and yes, I already alluded to that earlier myself), but the film even goes so far as to acknowledge that. The thing is that while that film is meant to be funny because of the person stuck in time loop and the ultimate redemption arch that he has to go through to break out of it, this one has the added bonus of the killer giving it a lot more urgency. Both films are comedies but this one has some real sense of consequence each time Tree dies. The mystery element is both hilarious and really engaging as you move through the list of suspects, trying to figure out who is trying to kill this girl and why. And it’s only that much more fun because there are only a lot of reasons to want to kill Tree.
This brings us to Jessica Rothe’s performance, which I can’t stress enough is absolutely perfect. She brings this character from being the kind of person that you’re kind of excited to see get killed again to someone you really want to succeed in figuring out what’s happening and stopping it. This would just be another redemption arch story, except for what Rothe brings to the character. Tree, even at her least likeable, is never someone you entirely hate. She manages to nail that level of bitchy that is believable but also entirely entertaining. There’s also something to say about the fact that she’s never entirely without any sense of depth or personality. In the hands of a less charismatic or talented actress, this wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. Given that the plot of the film rests pretty much entirely on Tree, Rothe is put in the position of having to do all the heavy lifting to make sure that the movie is still fun while it’s making you wander around its guessing game. And the fact that she not only pulls it off but makes it seem effortless and charming is a pretty awesome testimony to what she does with this role. And to be honest, I don’t know of many slasher flicks that can make me laugh and then later get me choking up right before it makes me giggle again, all while holding its own with the slasher element so that’s something to consider as well.
And yes, this is a slasher film, done in the self aware style like Scream or our previously covered Cabin in the Woods. Still, while those films had someone who was aware of the “rules”, this one only has one person who is learning them as she goes. She knows that it’s her birthday and the person trying to kill her knows that too. The rest of the information is something we find out when Tree does and what makes this so much fun to watch, other than the main character and her transformation throughout the film, is that our leading lady isn’t stupid. Unlike some of our clueless leads in the past, Tree is quick on her feet and puts her knowledge to use that make her feel like a worthy opponent for her killer. Even though I made a bit of fun of her for taking a different path during the second round on her way to her birthday party, it means that she isn’t just openly ignoring signs that something is up and she works right away to make sure that she’s trying to avoid it. This goes a long way towards really working with and upping that sense of urgency that the killer brings to the time loop. You don’t feel like she’s miles behind the killer so much as she’s just about hit the finish line. She knows what she has to do and each time you think she’s almost got it, you find a bit more of the puzzle but it knocks her back again.
About the only thing that I will say that isn’t as strong as it could be is the killer. We get that this person is relentless and, as mentioned, they aren’t going to rely on a single strategy to try to get Tree in the ground. This person is going to work with what’s available to them, changing it up for every death. It does mean we get some pretty awesome death scenes, but it also means that it kind of lacks that solid sense of danger that is usually a part of any good slasher flick. Don’t get me wrong, the killer is dangerous and you never feel like Tree is working against a noodle armed dipshit who couldn’t successfully kill off a store mannequin. That said, you also don’t really get a sense of their style, so to speak. If we think of the the greats in this genre, we usually think of their killers first. This is especially true of slashers like Kruger, who quip and ham it up, often eating up all the scenery around their prey but even quieter types have a tendency to be a more menacing presence than our oversized Baby in Happy Death Day. It would be easy to say that this might be because the identity of the killer is a part of the mystery, which is something different from slashers like Jason or Jigsaw or Freddy, but even then, Ghostface was still a lot more of a looming presence in Scream and the Baby is in this movie. I don’t think it helps that the motivation for said killer, when it is revealed, is really the strongest. If anything, the movie is stronger if we didn’t know but because the big moment comes like a minute before the final battle, it doesn’t really ruin the fun of the film that comes prior. It does kind of make you question what you remember from the killer prior but to be honest, it’s still not a deal breaker. This film is meant to be fun and if you embrace that part of it, that’s still what you’ll get out of it.
When this film came out, I know a few people made a bit of a fuss about the fact that it was PG13 and that it wasn’t going to be anywhere near as serious as other films that came out that year like Get Out or It and while both those things are true, I can’t argue with fun and entertaining. This movie is fun and the mystery is worth trying to figure out. Tree is a great character and I think that it says something that Jessica Rothe likes playing her so much, she has gone on record saying that she would totally be down to play her in a third instalment of the franchise, even if it took them years to cough another sequel up. I love that. I think that’s a great show of enthusiasm for a role and you really do feel that when you watch Tree wake up over and over again. The details are well taken care of, the characters are fleshed out enough that you know who they are without trying to figure out who that guy was again and the kills are pretty inventive. Occasionally it flirts with being over the top but that’s part of what makes it charming and though it might saddle up to that line, it never quite gets to sharks in a tornado levels of stupidity. I really do recommend it, especially if you are feeling a bit like every day is the same right now. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that things could always be worse.
And that brings us to the end of another Friday Nightmare Review. Thank you so much for spending the time watching another horror movie with me. If you are so inclined, you can check out all my reviews early, as well as exclusive content, on my Patreon. If life is a bit on the tighter side than it used to be, don’t fret and know that I enjoy your company here anyway. Until next time, keep an eye out for masked killers, pay attention to the details and here’s hoping that you survive to see a new tomorrow!