Happy Death Day

Directed by: Christopher Landon
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 96 minutes

Don’t Judge a Movie by its Title

“Happy Death Day” is a stupid name for a movie. There’s no getting around that. In honor of this dumb title, I’ve come up with a list of potential sequels for your reading pleasure:

“Merry Satan-mas”: A time-loop movie in which a group of kids continually get attacked by toys delivered by Santa. You find out halfway through the movie that the word Santa is an anagram for Satan (gasp!). The kids are stuck in the time loop getting attacked by Legos, Beanie Babies and iPads until they can find out what Satan did with the real Santa. So, basically “Krampus”, but more… time loop-y.

“Old Year’s Eve”: A particularly unremarkable man is stuck in a time loop, but instead of the conventional daylong loop, his lasts for an entire year. His life is so painfully boring that he doesn’t even realize he’s in the time loop until year four of his loopage. Once he recognizes the loop, he finally decides to talk to that girl that he sees every New Year’s Eve but never has the guts to talk to. They kiss at midnight and the loop is broken, and they live happily ever after.

“Happy Thanks Taking”: Liam Neeson (played by Liam Neeson) gets stuck in a time loop after his daughter (played by Meryl Streep, who will inevitably get nominated for an Oscar) willingly allows herself to get taken because he’s super mean. He has to receive a thank you from every person he encounters that day in order to break out of the loop. In this inspirational tale, we see a man recognize the error of his ways and finally start doing small favors for his fellow man.

I think I’ve made my point.

Jokes aside, “Happy Death Day” has a synopsis only slightly less ridiculous than the ones I just fabricated. A woman named Tree (Jessica Rothe) is stuck reliving the same day over and over until she can solve and prevent her own murder at the hands of a creepy-baby-mask-wearing knife-wielding son of a gun. If this sounds derivative to you, that’s because it is.

Time-loop movies are trendy. They’ve become their own subgenre at this point. To my knowledge, the genre started in 1993 with Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day”. Since then, we’ve had a number of great time-loop movies, including “12 Monkeys”, “Edge of Tomorrow”, “Looper”, “Predestination”, “Source Code”, the criminally underappreciated “Triangle” and, just this year, “Before I Fall”. My point is that these movies are becoming incredibly common, and they tend to be smart, engaging and totally ridiculous. As far as I know, “Happy Death Day” is the first instance of the time-loop genre venturing into horror territory.

As with all horror movies, the first question that must be asked is this: Is it scary? Unfortunately, the answer this time is a resounding no. Sure, it’s tense at times, but the baby mask just doesn’t quite get the job done. However, I’m not sure “Happy Death Day” was trying to be all that scary. It plays out more like a whodunit than a traditional horror film. I don’t necessarily fault it for this, but if you’re looking for something that’ll give you nightmares, I would look elsewhere.

Despite belonging to a crowded genre, “Happy Death Day” does have a few things that set it apart. For starters, Jessica Rothe is fantastic. Many phenomenal actresses get their first breakout role in slasher flicks, and I have a feeling that’s exactly what’s going to happen with Jessica Rothe. Her performance is worth the price of admission alone, as she adds heart to a movie that desperately needs it.

On top of Rothe’s great performance, the story is surprisingly effective within the strictly predefined confines of the genre. If you’ve seen any of the time-loop films I mentioned above, you pretty much know how these things go. A bad person gets stuck in the loop somehow until they find out some piece of information or face some truth from their past that inevitably makes them a better person. This is exactly how “Happy Death Day” plays out, adding nothing new except for a few horror elements to the genre. However, “Happy Death Day” absolutely knows what it is.

The whole film is completely self-aware. It knows it’s ridiculous. It knows its title is stupid. It knows exactly what movies its using for inspiration and isn’t afraid to call them out. This self-awareness elevates what would otherwise be a derivative time-loop movie mixed with a disappointing horror movie to a serviceable member of both genres and a good time at the theater.

Overall, Rothe’s performance, a surprisingly strong story and a fun sense of self-awareness make a good movie out of what easily could’ve been a terrible one. That being said, this is the best possible thing that a movie called “Happy Death Day” could possibly be. In other words, it’s actually pretty good.

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