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New Release Review - HAPPY DEATH DAY

HAPPY DEATH DAY review
A medical student is forced to repeatedly relive the day of her murder until she can identify her killer.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Christopher Landon

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews

HAPPY DEATH DAY poster


Once in a while Hollywood figures out a genre and gets it down pat - musicals and gangster movies in the '30s, noir in the '40s, westerns in the '50s - delivering a series of quality entertainments off a well oiled production line. In the 21st century, Hollywood has come in for much criticism for its inability to consistently deliver satisfying blockbusters, but if there's one type of movie Hollywood now does better than anyone it's the female led teen comedy. Movies like Mean Girls, Easy A, The DUFF and The Edge of Seventeen have managed to win over both their target audience of teenage girls and jaded critics by delivering smart, witty, well crafted entertainments, usually anchored by a lead performance from an exceptionally talented young actress. And refreshingly, none of these films are designed to launch franchises; rather they focus on spinning a single story in 90 or so minutes.

HAPPY DEATH DAY

Using the now much copied Groundhog Day format, Happy Death Day combines the female led teen comedy with the slasher movie, and yet again is fronted by a lead performance from a gifted ingenue, in this case Jessica Rothe, a 30-year-old actress who after grafting in background roles (you may recognise her from a small role as Emma Stone's roommate in La La Land) for the past half decade finally gets a showcase for her talents. On the evidence of Happy Death Day, we'll be seeing a whole lot more of Rothe in years to come. Her performance here is so confident, assured and naturally charismatic, it creates the impression that this is a star we've seen fronting movies for decades, rather than a relative newcomer.

Rothe is Theresa Gelbman, a narcissistic medical student who wakes up nursing a raging hangover on the morning of her birthday in the dorm room of geeky nice guy Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). After a walk of shame through the college grounds, Theresa goes about her daily routine of being a total bitch to everyone she meets, refusing to answer her father's phone calls, romping with her hunky professor in his office and ending the evening getting wasted at a party. However, this day ends with Theresa getting offed by a masked, knife-wielding killer.

HAPPY DEATH DAY

To her surprise, Theresa immediately reawakens in Carter's dorm room, finding it's the same day. Shrugging it off as a weird dream, Theresa goes about her business, but once again her day ends with her demise, and once again she wakes up in Carter's room. Enlisting the aid of horror movie fan Carter, Theresa realises her only hope of escaping the loop is to identify her killer. Who would want to kill her? Or rather, who wouldn't? Thanks to Theresa's abrasive, snooty personality, practically the entire campus is a suspect.

I've often wondered how a slasher movie might play out if its heroine were the bitchy, promiscuous sorority girl (usually the first to get killed; well, after the black guy) rather than the timid virgin who inevitably becomes the 'final girl'. Happy Death Day has the ingenious idea of presenting us with a protagonist who begins the film as exactly the sort of bitchy, promiscuous sorority girl who provides disposable fodder for the blade of a masked murderer. To escape her fate, Theresa must transition herself into a better person - just as Bill Murray did to win over Andie MacDowell in the 1993 comedy that provides Happy Death Day with its template - essentially morphing from the sort of stereotype most likely to die in a slasher movie into the one most likely to survive. With the horror genre undergoing so much postmodern examination in recent decades, it's incredible that nobody thought of this ingenious premise before.

HAPPY DEATH DAY

Happy Death Day is an example of old fashioned, airtight American storytelling at its best, and it's no surprise to find it was penned by a single writer (Scott Lobdell, making a seamless transition from comic books to cinema). Unlike the average modern Hollywood script - usually a bloated, unfocussed mishmash of the work of three or more writers - Lobdell's is expertly structured and free of the sort of expository dialogue that so often mars postmodern horrors, with none of the clunkiness of the Scream franchise and its many imitators. It outdoes the impressive Edge of Tomorrow in its employment of a time-loop structure, and it's arguably a better version of Groundhog Day than Groundhog Day itself. It certainly has a more engaging protagonist. To quote Theresa, "Who's Bill Murray?"

Happy Death Day is in UK/ROI cinemas now.



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