This article was first published to The Edge on October 29th 2017
Slashers do not want the Popular girls to live. No matter where the killer’s doing the stalking, the first one to die and “deserve” it is the bitch. Happy Death Day doesn’t just know this, it indulges us in this. But once its indulged you, you’ll find a subtle subversion of the trope, by getting straight to the core of why it exists: these movies believe we (a typically young audience) want this type of woman to die, because it’ll exonerate us from our own bad behaviour:
“If you sleep around, get drunk, lie to and disregard your friends, and show no regard for others, you will get what’s coming to you – violently.”
And Tree (Jessica Rothe) is all of that bad behaviour, rolled into a woman with zero patience for your disapproval. From the second she grumpily awakes with a hangover one Monday morning, in the dorm room bed of a guy she can’t remember (Israel Broussard), she goes about her normal routine of self-involvement, stopping only briefly to ignore her Dad’s phone calls, acknowledge that this is also her birthday, and to brush off her housemates. However, en route to a frat party that night, she’s viciously murdered by a masked assailant. With that, she begins a cycle of pain and fear that shows no sign of ending until she stops her killer.
As genre set-ups go, it’s both familiar and ingenious. The fantastical time loop trope isn’t nearly as common as its popular culture presence is, thanks to the comedic masterpiece of Groundhog Day, and more recent remixes found in Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow; we all get how any character undergoing this hell ultimately behaves in response, since they usually start doing everything wrong to begin with – what’s fun are the specifics. Meanwhile it’s been years since there was any notable wide-release slasher movie that wasn’t a remake. Putting the two together is so simple, I was shocked it hadn’t been thought of before.
Impressively however, despite the famously minimal budgets of production company Blumhouse (just $5 million), Happy Death Day is first and foremost a stunning film to watch. Its tone careens wildly between outright horror, teen melodrama, comedy montages, de Palma thriller, and serious drama; the shifts are sudden, but director Christopher Landon nails each moment. This is the most outright fun of any horror film this year, as well as being seriously scary where it counts. Through the confident use of POV, chiaroscuro, Steadicam tilts and tracking shots, and his brilliant transitions, as well as an expert handling of geography and one great split dioptre shot, Happy Death Day stands out this year above more prestigious films of any genre in purely visual thrills.
None of this would matter if the characters weren’t worth watching. Here the cast embrace a similar aversion to nuance: there’s the scummy older male (Charles Aitken), the judgemental leader (Rachel Matthews), the friendly roommate (Ruby Modine), and the one good guy, the aforementioned Broussard as Carter. Everyone brings these caricatures to life in delightful fashion, none more so than the scenery chewing Matthews. Broussard is pointedly more naturalistic, and feels genuine a relatively rote “nice guy” character. Towering above them is Jessica Rothe as Tree, who carries the entire film. Without Rothe the tone could never be bearable. Part of it is perfect casting: her angular face makes her appear instantly uninterested in your problems, nor does she ever sound like a “badass”. When she screams, in fear or triumph, it’s high-pitched and feminine. Yet she brings it elsewhere – the confusion she presents on her first loop is truly affecting, and her evolving decisions never feel extraneous. It’s an incredible performance.
Happy Death Day isn’t nuanced or subtle; it’s less a deconstruction than a “have cake and eat it too” situation. But it mostly pulls this off by Landon and co.’s (special credit to Toby Oliver’s cinematography) brazen commitment to a Pop style and tone that’s been sorely lacking from bigger-budget horror movies.
Happy Death Day (2017), directed by Christopher Landon, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures International, Certificate 15.