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Happy Death Day

Universal // PG-13 // January 16, 2018
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted January 28, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Along with concentrating on making thrills or gore stimulating in one way or another, horror directors must also closely manage the expectations and anticipations of their audience, else they'll fall into the trap of being compared to whatever countless others have come before it in a specific subgenre. Christopher Landon's Happy Death Day not only has to navigate the hopes of those going in for yet another slasher movie, it also has to work around its plainly-seen similarities to the Bill Murray vehicle Groundhog Day: the notion that someone lives out the same day repeatedly in hopes of doing things right enough to see tomorrow. Once it's been going long enough for those watching to realize that it'll neither take certain smart ways out of the scenario nor conceal its blatant borrowing of the concept, the film discovers a gleefully macabre rhythm that telegraphs both laughs and tension, though its capabilities as a horror film might've been undercut by the frequency of deaths and the strong lean toward humor throughout.

College student Theresa, "Tree" (Jessica Rothe), wakes up on the morning of her birthday in the bed of a stranger, a lanky and affable guy named Carter (Israel Broussard) who tries to help get her stuff together, both literally and figuratively, on the headache-laden morning after a bender. Crankily, Tree stumbles out of his dorm room and into the wild of their campus, waltzing through a regular rhythm of petitioners, frat pledges, and admirers of hers as she makes the walk back to her sorority house. It's a routine, narcissistic day for Tree … until later that night, when she's murdered by someone wearing her college's mascot as a facemask. Instead of dying, she finds herself waking up the next morning right back in Carter's bed, reliving the same day once again and, unfortunately, meeting the same end, only in a different sequence of events. Gaining a grasp on what's happening with the situation, Tree attempts to figure out how to evade the killer, discover their identity, and survive until the next day, all the while figuring out some other stuff about herself.

You'd think that after Tree deals with the cyclical situation a handful of times and figures out the dynamics of what's going on, she might give skipping class and fleeing campus a try -- perhaps hopping on a plane and leaving the state -- since her repeated murder seems to be the mechanism that reboots the day. She doesn't, and that's surprising considering she's so self-concerned and focused on her own preservation, amplified by Jessica Rothe's vicious performance at the beginning. Happy Death Day operates in easily consumable platitudes, starting out with Tree as the embodiment of a conceited, venomous sorority girl who gives the immature self-absorption of Mean Girls' Regina George or any of the Heathers in Heathers a run for their money. As one might be able to decode from the premise, the evolution of Tree's negative attitude across repeated days and being murdered over and over turns into a crucial storytelling element in Christopher Landon's film, and Jessica Rothe's exaggerated and insistently unlikable rendering of the character draws attention to the concept's playful ambitions.

Naturally, the ambitions of Happy Death Day rely on observing how Tree gets murdered in a plethora of ways by one undeniably motivated killer, forcing her to reevaluate her activities and relationships over and over until she might be able to prevent her demise. While the redemptive setup of Tree's mean-spirited character may imitate Groundhog Day, the similarities ease up once she realizes that she won't be able to move on with her life until she survives her birthday, giving her a goal to work toward as she acclimates to the repetition. Executed by a creepy doll-faced predator reminiscent of the ghostly killer in Scream, the death sequences add gleeful and erratic variety to the progression of events, though the tone abruptly shifts from growing dread to macabre humor once she gets used to being murdered over and over. Knowing that she's going to die in every cycle until she cracks the mystery -- or comes to some other realization -- drains a certain type of suspense out of Happy Death Day, but it's been replaced with anticipating how Tree discovers new elements of her surroundings or shifts in her personality.

What keeps the audience on their toes in Happy Death Day, on top of unexpectedly brutal ways in which the Babyface Killer cuts down Tree, is the variety of suspects that could feasibly lurk behind the mask. Director Landon relishes toying with the audience in how his heroine tries to check off suspects around her, working with the film's perception of her metamorphosis into a better person as an indicator that she might be getting closer to discovering who they really are … and them cleverly flips the script on the film's early use of exaggerated platitudes. At one point, it seems entirely possible that Happy Death Day could've veered in an infuriating direction not foreshadowed by the layout of suspects and allies surrounding Tree, but even that plays into the film's wicked little stratagems and, by extension, the audience's expectations. Whether Tree wisely uses the days and the gaps in time we don't see is debatable, but at least the film doesn't fall into the trap of merely repeating her routines over and over, unless there's something truly meaningful involved with pinpointing her killer.

Everything doesn't go off without a hitch in Happy Death Day, from Tree's limited imagination in how to evade her situation to the spotty logic behind her not-so-thorough examination of suspects around the campus; with time, events and strategies confirm that she's much sharper than she lets on at first. While stumbling in areas, it makes up for it with the charmingly devil-may-care attitude adopted by the heroine as she gains perspective on her self-absorption, while becoming aware and appreciative of the smaller details going on in the world around her. Until the end, however, Christopher Landon never forgets that this is ultimately a horror movie, and his perception of how the set-up could become sentimentally imbalanced keeps the film's intentions in check until the last bite. In the vein of whimsical fantasy-horror flicks like The Final Girls and Ouija: Origin of Evil, enough gets taken seriously in the dramatics of Happy Death Day -- especially in terms of grief and relationships with parents -- to anchor the wit and violence, making this rousing indie outing not seem like it's just going through the motions.

Video and Audio:

Happy Death Day jolts awake on Blu-ray in a warm, colorful presentation of its 2.35:1-framed digital photography, rendered by Universal in a sharp 1080p AVC encode. Across most sequences, the cinematography leans toward a richer, tan-oriented palette, which seeps into the skin tones throughout, leaving them intentionally skewed into an orange-ish state. This fits appropriately with the intended look of the film, though, which is also punctuated with a wide range colors throughout: lime green garments, glowing pink neon lights, and the blue hues of hospital screens and police signals. Other scenes are much cooler in temp, especially during a parking deck sequence, and everything adjusts accordingly … though the sickly yellows of paint really stand out there. Detail fluctuates much as it does with digital cinematography, ranging from satisfactory and marginal with flat, mushy detail to impeccably razor-sharp, seen in the coarseness of pavement, the textures of the baby mask, even strands of head and arm hair. Contrast fluctuates as well: it's deep, well-balanced and enhances depth at some points, then overly stiff, light, and detail-oppressive in others (especially at night). On the whole, however, Happy Death Day achieves its decidedly stylized appearance with high-def bravado.

The sound design of Happy Death Day has about the same amount of exaggerated attitude as the visuals, driven by suspenseful scoring but interrupted by assertive crashes, stabbing noises, and other intense effects, all of which the 5.1 Master Audio track exceptionally captures throughout. Subtle sound effects are, interestingly enough, some of most attention-grabbing and crucial throughout, from sprinklers and fluid spritzing onto concrete to Tree's obnoxious cell phone ringer going off every morning, which find a comfortable and crystal-clear home effortlessly moving between the center and front speakers. Firmer effects, such as an explosion and a car collision, grasp the appropriate amount of resonance and lower-end responsiveness. Dialogue has the restrained clarity of a indie picture, but it's always well-adjusted to the surrounding score and response nicely when impacted by the environment, such as screams muted by a glass pane. No distortion crops up throughout, and while a few fiery effects possess less volume than I'd like, the aural side of Happy Death Day makes it through no worse for wear. English, French, and Spanish subtitles and alternate language options are available.

Special Features:

Along with a series of inessential and occasionally redundant Deleted Scenes (9:22, 16x9 HD) and a widely chosen-against Alternate Ending (2:21, 16x9 HD), Universal have included a standard array of press-kit extras filled with surface-level interviews and clips. They include: Worst Birthday Ever (3:14, 16x9 HD), an overview of what the film's about and the challenges of a "timeline movie"; Behind the Mask: The Suspects (3:15, 16x9 HD), which tracks through the killer's design and the dynamic of the day repetition as it pertains to solving the mystery; and The Many Deaths of Tree (1:37, 16x9 HD), a self-explanatory discussion and collage of clips that does touch upon the time-loop mechanisms. A DVD Copy and Digital Copy slip have also been included.

Final Thoughts:

Beyond a few oddities and its unshakable reliance on the "Groundhog Day concept", among other influences, Happy Death Day is a riot of a horror-comedy hybrid. Boasting an immensely talented and charismatic lead in Jessica Rothe, the idea of someone learning who their murderer is by dying over and over again, with the almost videogame-esque goal of surviving until the end of the level day, plays exceptionally well with the college environment and the variety of death methods -- and suspects -- involving Tree's demise. The physical and situational comedy works well with the time-loop design, the kills are morbid without being exaggerated, and the drama involved with why the heroine relives this day sufficiently deepens the experience. Certain elements keep it out of the reach of cult-status greatness, but it's a tremendously entertaining and stylized slice of indie horror. The film and the strong audiovisual treatment earn a very firm Recommendation.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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