When it comes to the mainstream horror releases of 2017, outside of Get Out, Split and Life, there wasn’t much that impressed me. When it came to last year’s horror slate, VOD and smaller horror films is where it was at for me—Gerald’s Game, It Comes at Night, Cult of Chucky, The Belko Experiment and Leatherface were more my cup of tea. Because of this, I avoided catching the Blumhouse film Happy Death Day in theaters. With it’s release on VOD in recent weeks, my curiosity got the best of me. So, let’s take a look at Happy Death Day.
Blumhouse‘s latest horror hit follows Tree, the Ebenezer Scrooge of Sorority girls. On Tree’s Birthday, she’s killed by a masked killer, only to find herself alive again the next day, well the next day being that same day. In the style of Groundhog’s Day, Tree finds herself reliving the same day over and over again, only to be hunted down by the killer each night.
The first major red flag walking into this movie was that it was written and directed by middle-aged men. Typically when middle-aged writer/directors try to write these hip College kid characters, it’s embarrassing. Having recently seen the latest example, Wish Upon, I was prepared for some major cringe. Much to my surprise, the characters and the dialogue felt very grounded, I wasn’t constantly taken out of it by how “hip” it was trying to be (once again, I’m looking at you Wish Upon).
The film is directed by Christopher Landon (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) and written by comic book writer Scott Lobdell (X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, Red Hood and the Outlaws). Well, Lobdell wrote the original script that was optioned back in ’07. On the Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith, Christopher Landon said “There were two drafts of Scott’s and then I ended up writing ten drafts”. Landon went on to list a number of differences including kills, dialogue, character dynamics. In fact, Landon re-wrote the movie for a different director to make. After creative differences (original director preferred the original script) the project fell through. Eight years later, the movie got made with Landon as director, but the WGA chose to give full writing credits to Lobdell. One of the smartest things that I think this movie does is that it focuses on characters instead of kills, which is especially smart because of that PG-13 rating.
That’s another thing that shocked me, with that first kill I said “Oh nooooo, is this PG-13?” , although somehow this movie got me so hooked into its characters and fun tone that I gave no notice to the lack of gore. The killing isn’t the point, it’s not that type of slasher movie, instead the violence is played up for laughs at a certain point. On the same podcast I mentioned above, the director stated that the film was originally much gorier, until the studio wanted a PG-13 film. Although he initially wasn’t happy about it, Landon said that it was then that he realized what was important to the story and that the gore wasn’t what was interesting or deep. Remember that whole slew of PG-13 horror movies that tried to act like Friday the 13th but they were more like some kind of “Disney After Dark”?
Remember Prom Night ’08?
When A Stranger Calls ’06?
One Missed Call 08′?
The Haunting in Connecticut?
The House at the End of the Street?
This was the kind of thinking we needed to save those movies. This movie is all about the characters, as well as setting up and paying off a number of characters and plot points that you don’t even realize were set up until they pay off, which isn’t a bad thing at all in my book, not in this particular case at least. Happy Death Day also accomplishes something important, but lacking, in many horror movies today and that’s getting me to relate to the protagonist because they’re making the most rational, relatable decisions. It’s not a movie about the scares, it’s about watching Tree’s character growth and how she unravels the mystery in front of her, which is endlessly entertaining. I loved learning new things about the characters and the story, wonderful attention to detail.
Happy Death Day’s cast, much like many of the low-budget horror films today, isn’t exactly filled with A, B or even C-list names. Everybody’s filmography is mainly TV and small indie work, which is shocking considering the level of quality that every single cast member brings to their role. For instance, Rachel Matthews is barely in the movie and her character is far from deep, yet she kills it so hard with her delivery that you don’t realize how small her role actually was until you watch it a second time. This is Matthews’ first acting gig (at least that’s what IMDB says) and she is a major stand out, amongst a cast of stand outs. Jessica Rothe as Tree is perfect in this role and when people talk about performances that could have only worked with that actor, this is one of those times. I cannot picture this movie without Rothe’s particular delivery, reactions and energy.
When the movie gets going in the second act, it becomes insanely fun. I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched a new horror movie and had that big of a smile on my face the whole time, with the exception of the best horror comedy of 2017—Wish Upon. This movie is unironically the feel-good horror movie of the season. As opposed to most mainstream horror movies today, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it takes itself seriously enough to build a plausible world. My only major problem with this film is that it ends at the 81-minute mark, yet for some reason they had to tack on this whole second climax that I didn’t find necessarily bad, it’s still fun, it’s just completely unnecessary and enters “Okay, get on with it” territory. That being said, had they stuck with the alternate ending (available on the Blu Ray, or when you purchase the film on digital platforms) then that sequence I’m talking about would’ve been just fine. If anything, it would have brought that smile back on my face. According to the director, test audiences hated the original ending, so a new one was filmed to much warmer reception. Goddamn you, test audiences. Goddamn you.
To wrap it up, this is one of my favorite genre movies of last year. It may not be one of the best, we had films like Blade Runner 2049 and Logan that were so well done that they transcended their genre, but this film instead revels in its genre in the smartest, most fun ways possible. It’s popcorn entertainment, but it’s some tasty fucking popcorn. I’m constantly asking for horror movies with more personality and here is the perfect example of one, my prayers have been answered. This isn’t going to be for everybody obviously, but I couldn’t recommend it enough. Redbox is what, a buck twenty-five a night? Hell, this would be a steal even if you paid the $4.99 to rent it digitally.
9 out of 10
Happy Death Day is currently available to own on VOD platforms, available for digital rental and physical purchase starting January 16th