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November 15, 2017

‘Happy Death Day’ a slasher love letter saturated in absurdity

(Official Facebook page of ‘Happy Death Day’)

Mimicking the time loop trope popularized by “Groundhog Day” in 1993, “Happy Death Day” proves to be an entertaining addition to the lineup of releases by Blumhouse Productions this year. Reminiscent of (and deeply in love with) the teen slasher movies of the 1990s and early 2000s, the film often revels in its own absurdity and delivers an enjoyable ride about a girl who is killed repeatedly on her birthday.

We meet our protagonist—after what we can assume to be a night of heavy drinking and regrets—as she is startled awake by her obnoxious ringtone which incessantly reminds the audience that it’s her birthday. Tree (Jessica Rothe) realizes that, much to her disgust, she spent last night in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard). While Tree is scrambling to find her clothes and soothe her pounding migraine, Carter is eager to help her. However, she’s more interested in leaving as quickly as possible, and tears out of the dorm.

On her way back to her sorority, director Christopher Landon sets up a series of familiar “key events” which will come into play farther along in the film. You’ll see these events dozens of times before the closing credits and they are a tired trope that is used to demonstrate to another character how the protagonist is in fact caught in a time loop. Yes, it is just something one comes to expect from the genre, but there have been films which perform the trope much more expertly,  such as “Edge of Tomorrow.”

Fortunately, this cliché also serves to illustrate that Tree is not the most well-liked student even among her friends, which complicates just who her killer could be. Landon and screenwriter Scott Lobdell are genre-savvy enough to know that viewers will be searching for the killer early on. Therefore, the script stuffs in plenty of suspects to keep the viewers guessing.

Tree returns to her home, where we meet the spiteful, fat-shaming head of the sorority Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and her fervent roommate Lori (Ruby Modine). A few other “key events” include a confrontation with Tim (Caleb Spillyards), a quick hook-up with her professor, Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken) and being murdered by a knife-wielding individual wearing a baby mask. As expected, she wakes up in Carter’s bed and is forced to relive her birthday again.

Taking another page out of the “Groundhog Day” book, the movie puts Tree in a position in which she will need to asses her world and how she treats others. She must realign her morals while she attempts to unmask her killer, but she does have Carter to lean on.

Landon and Lobdell are aware of their chosen genre and generally make use of the narrative structure to ramp up the fun. By playing with the repetition, they succeed in making a comical and amusing “Scream”-inspired slasher flick that surely will appease fans. Of course, their competence is greatly aided by a clever performance by Jessica Rothe, who will likely (and rightly) be dubbed the next Scream Queen. Rothe delivers an exhilarating character to the big screen and convinces audiences of the many turns taken during the narrative.

Though the film is relatively well-rounded for what it is, there is one glaring flaw. It was very obviously written by a man. The idea of what women do in college seems to be picked right out of “American Pie.” College girls drink heavily, sleep with their teachers and constantly quarrel within their sorority. It is a rather flat view of what a female character should be, and seriously detracts from the film.

“Happy Death Day” is a pleasing slasher comedy which packs enough punch to leave you grinning as you leave the theater, though not without its flaws. Rothe’s role as Tree is enough to make audiences nostalgic of a time when the horror genre was this fun.

Daniel Monahan can be reached at dmonahan@umass.edu.

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