Given COVID-19 and all, a lot of theaters are playing older films. I don’t know how they’re deciding the slate, but one of the films showing in my local theater was Christopher Landon’s 2017 film Happy Death Day. (I wore a mask the whole time!) As I said with my review of his latest film Freaky, I’ve been on a Landon kick lately. I saw this last week, and just procrastinated on the review. Another aspect that’s unique about my viewing of this, aside from seeing it in the movie theater three years after its formal release, is that it’s PG-13. I don’t typically see PG-13 horror films because for the obvious reason, they’re tamer. They’re appealing to a bigger audience. I’m not saying horror can’t work in the PG-13 format. After all, two of my favorite horror movies of the 21st century are 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose and 2018’s A Quiet Place. There’s nothing that says a movie rated PG-13 can’t be horrific. But, admittedly, I have that built-in bias.
Nonetheless, this is not only PG-13, but like Freaky, it’s a comedy-horror-sci-fi-teen romance genre mashup. It’s a genre salad. And it’s tasty in that way. The basic premise is that Tree (played by Jessica Rothe) is being chased and killed by a psycho killer, but she’s in a time loop, essentially like Groundhog Dog, and that loop keeps happening until she can solve her murder. It’s pretty genius a conceit for a horror film, to be honest. And comedy, as it sets up fun gags while she tries to solve it.
For how different it is, and the chances it takes, the Rottentomatoes critical consensus score of 71 percent is solid, “Happy Death Day puts a darkly humorous sci-fi spin on slasher conventions, with added edge courtesy of a starmaking performance from Jessica Rothe.”
The wonderful thing about this film is that Tree starts off being someone I can’t stand. She’s an awful human being to everyone, and that’s partly because, as I also said in my Freaky review, Landon leans on that “parent is dead” trope for the emotional baggage. In this case, Tree’s mother, who happens to share the same birthday as Tree, died a year prior. All of this is taking place on their birthdays, a birthday Tree is trying to avoid, obviously. But through the course of the film, it’s almost like 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life where because of the loop, Tree gets a chance to see how awful she’s being and change course. In the course of all of that, she falls for a lovely gentleman named Carter (played by Israel Broussard). To where, by the end of the film, I love Tree and I love Carter and I love this cast of characters Landon has created. I’m rooting for them to break the loop, kill the killer, and fall in love!
Rothe is awesome. She plays that arc beautifully, and she also kicks ass as a non-traditional horror “final girl.” I say non-traditional because of the genre mashup here. But she also plays the frustration with the sci-fi element well, and the ups and downs with the teen romance well, and the comedy well. She can do it all, quite frankly, and seamlessly moves through them. The film has a good script and, as I said, a brilliant conceit, but it’s elevated that much more by Rothe’s presence and performance.
Here’s the wildest thing about this film to me: I think I had a Groundhog Day moment with it myself. I’m certain I haven’t seen this film before. In the course of watching it, it didn’t seem familiar. And yet, I had the lingering sense that I had seen it before. At least, I knew who the killer was, as if I had seen the film. It was a weird sense of déjà vu. So, because of that, I don’t know if it was predictable or not that it was Tree’s roommate, Lori (played by Ruby Modine), who was the killer.
Finally, one final note I thought of almost as an addendum after writing the bulk of this post: I didn’t even talk about whether it was scary or not or if it was effective as a horror film. I already suggested it was effective as a sci-fi film, as a comedy, and as a teen romance film. As a horror slasher film, there were some moments that got me, and made me jump. But the horror does take a backseat to those other genres, and it’s clear Landon and his team are more comfortable in those genres.
Overall, if you’re looking for a fun one to spend a 96 minutes, this will scratch that itch. Granted, it better be an itch with a bunch of weird inflammations (I don’t know if that makes any sense) because this is a genre mind-bender. Leave convention at the door, and go for the ride.
If you’ve seen this film, what did you think?