Review: Happy Death Day (2017)

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Director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell craft a very engaging dissection of slasher tropes in the surprisingly funny and watchable Happy Death Day.

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It goes without saying for horror fans that the slasher film genre is one of the most predictable ones in all of film. The prototypical killer targets a group of teens representing different youth archetypes, with the often promiscuous party girl typically being the first one literally axed, and then proceeds to cut them down one by one until the virtuous final girl remains to face the killer one on one. The 2010 film Cabin in the Woods succeeds as well as it does mainly by highlighting these ubiquitous tropes and conventions in the genre and trying to subvert audience expectations to craft a new spin on it. It’s for that same reason that Happy Death Day succeeds. It’s a fun genre bender that recognizes in a standard slasher, our protagonist Tree (played by Jessica Rothe) would be cannon fodder before the first act is complete. Here, we follow her to that inevitable early onscreen death outside her sorority house at the hands of a masked killer, only to get skipped back to the start of her day as if the death had never happened. It’s only until Tree dies for the second time that she realizes something is wrong and the audience is in for a ride figuring out just what the reason is for her short term resurrections.

The main reason Happy Death Day works isn’t because of the Groundhog Day goes morbid gimmick. It is because as Tree dies, we not only get to learn more about her life and why her birthday isn’t something this college party girl is all about celebrating. It’s because Lobdell’s script slowly teases out and unravels her inner life to the audience as she continues to die. We meet Tree as a party girl whose life in the slasher genre isn’t worth anything until she’s dispatched in as bloody a way as possible. But as this film goes on, we learn about her faults and frailties and what her haughty demeanor is a cover for. Once you give a trope archetype something of an inner life and soul, that character becomes an intriguing protagonist and you deconstruct your narrative conventions. Lobdell, well known for his comic book run in the X-Men in the 1990’s gives us these engaging frame breaks that director Landon translates well into film. Landon, primarily a screenwriter til now, seems to have found a solid partner with this screenplay by Lobdell, and he delivers a visually engaging and innovative film. It’s not faultless, the film’s red herring psycho killer doesn’t quite work, but the film’s ultimate reveal pays homage to 80’s slashers like Happy Birthday To Me and Sleepaway Camp.

Happy Death Day is the rare modern slasher that works. It embraces its unique premise and really makes it work as a horror meets comedy hybrid. Definitely a scare you’ll want to revisit again … and again.

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