31 Screams in October, Vol. 4, #12: Happy Death Day (2017)

Posted: October 12, 2018 in Movie Review


Director: Christopher Landon

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard

Before I get started, I want to take this time to encourage anyone reading who somehow has managed not to have seen the classic Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day” to set aside just under two hours and watch it. I would not say it’s absolutely necessary to have seen it, but it absolutely helps to have prior knowledge of “Groundhog Day” before going into “Happy Death Day,” which counts the earlier film as one of its main sources of inspiration.

As with “Groundhog Day,” “Happy Death Day” focuses on a main character that, as we are introduced to them, is absolutely reprehensible. This person is Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe). When we first encounter Tree, she is dismissive of most people, and treats the rest like playthings. In a slasher film (which this is in part), Tree is the one you would want to see die first. Because of the unique nature of this particular horror film, Tree is both first to die and the “final girl.”

It’s Tree’s birthday, and she’s waking up in an unfamiliar dorm room belonging to Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). Carter’s a nice guy, and is going to become Tree’s best friend during the worst, longest day of her life. The day plays itself out, culminating in Tree walking alone in the night to a party. Tree never gets to that party, because she is cornered and killed in a tunnel. Tree wakes up and it’s the morning of her birthday once again. Recognizing key elements of this day she’s lived through once before, Tree decides the best way to avoid dying is to avoid going into that tunnel. She gets to the party this time, but the killer is inside waiting and kills her again. After choosing to barricade herself inside her dorm room during the third version of the day, Tree still winds up being murdered. This time, she talks to Carter about it. He’s understandably skeptical, and his only suggestion is one that Tree doesn’t much care for but accepts as the only viable option: continue playing the day over (i.e. keep dying) until clues lead her to the identity of her killer.

Considering how Tree has acted towards most of the people she knows, the killer could be pretty much anyone. It could be fellow sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), doctor/professor Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken) with whom Tree is having an affair, Gregory’s wife Stephanie (Laura Clifton), Tree’s roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), or even Carter. All Tree is certain of is that it must be someone who knows that it’s her birthday. She’s able to narrow the field a bit by spotting certain suspects just before the killer sneaks up behind her. It was during this hilarious sequence of events that something entirely unexpected happened: I became an unashamed fan of the pop song “Confident” by Demi Lovato.

Eventually, a new wrinkle is introduced when a fainting spell puts Tree in the hospital. X-rays reveal that she has internal injuries which are remnants of her previous deaths. Gregory (left unaware of Tree’s time loop) is alarmed because, in his experience, a person with these injuries shouldn’t be alive. This also serves to let both Tree and the audience know that her reboots are not unlimited. That’s something which “Groundhog Day” fans will know that Bill Murray never had to deal with, and it only further adds to this film’s suspense. If you’re really observant, you might figure out the identity of the killer during this particular loop.

The next loop introduces the serial killer John Tombs (Rob Mello). He might as well have the words ‘RED HERRING’ tattooed on his forehead. Tree automatically assumes he’s her murderer, somehow forgetting the previously established fact that the killer is someone who knows this day is her birthday, information Tombs could not possess. It’s only after going through two cycles to get the drop on Tombs and kill him that Tree finds out who the real villain is.

Not simply because I’m partial to horror films of the 1980s, but I really don’t go in expecting horror movies made in the 2010s to be quite this good. I didn’t even care that the PG-13 rating meant that the violence would be scaled back. In “Happy Death Day,” the emphasis is placed on Tree’s time loops and her personal journey to solve her own murder and become a better person. She’s able to do the latter through her budding relationship with Carter, reconciliation with her father, and a better overall grasp of how to act selflessly.

I can’t imagine anyone other than Jessica Rothe in the lead role. Her performance, as Tree evolves from queen bitch into slasher film heroine, is an absolute joy to watch. I love the scene where Tree expresses to her father regret for her recent behavior, and how she believes her deceased mother (with whom she shared a birthday) would be ashamed of who she’d become. I also love the part where Tree proves to Carter that she’s lived this day before, pointing out all the minute details which one might otherwise overlook.

“Happy Death Day” is one more example of a horror movie so great that nothing would be gained by the existence of a sequel. Still, one is coming in 2019, and it is ready to commit the cardinal sin of explaining that which need not be explained. I’ll pass. Still, on its own merits, “Happy Death Day” remains my favorite of all the 31 films I watched in this marathon. That says less about how good/bad the rest of the movies are and more about how fantastic this one is.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Good to know! I will want to watch this movie in the near future and also will keep an eye out for Jessica Rothe in other roles! Maybe she has a chance to branch out to other genre after this favorable performance.

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