Happy Death Day

4 out of 5

Directed by: Christopher Langdon

I feel I should have more to say on this, but I think that the summarized pitch of “like Groundhog’s Day, but as a teen slasher” sets the stage rather effectively (and if you went into it cold, like me, the rewinding/restarting title sequence clues you in pretty quickly); the only thing more to know is: I really enjoyed it.

Yes, as a “smart” horror flick of the Scream variety, in which character awareness can be used to dismantle genre tropes, the movie has its failings: its very much PG-13, and there will be quite a few moments where the character’s decision path is more decided by “this will make for a fun montage” than logic, and Scott Lobdell’s script jumps rather too eagerly into sudden goofy comedy or dramatic moments, undermining the impact of either.  It’s typical shorthand character development, as Tree (Jessica Rothe) learns the moral consequences of having lived the shallow sorority girl life she has thanks to her having to re-live the same day – her birthday, natch – over and over, always ended knifed by the same masked killer, and it’s where the genre mash stumbles as well, as the setup doesn’t quite hit the horror notes since its busy trying to eke some meaning out of things at the same time.  But again, I must come back to the fact that I really enjoyed it.  Director Christopher Langdon doesn’t wallow in any particular aspect of the flick for too long, keeping it moving and also – importantly – preventing Rothe’s character from becoming too much of a stereotype of any one final girl / reformed girl / etc. thing.  This is also, of course, very much down to Rothe, who has been rightfully praised across both positive and negative takes on the flick: she nails all of the required frightful and funny and emotional beats that the script or direction might not immediately provide.

Bear McCreary’s score is another highlight.  While I’m not an outright fan of Bear, his unusual blend of discordance any bright, college-campus pop gives the movie a unique aural flavor.  I can’t be the only one who heard Gremlins’ wail in the weird affect Bear tossed on to the murder moments of the score, and while it’s not a direct movie comparison, I think it puts Happy Death Day in good company of elevated 80s PG / PG-13 flicks that dared to be a little more daring and challenging than their peers.

A late, clear-as-day namecheck for Groundhog’s Day relaxes us into accepting that Happy Death Day is aware that it’s not the newest kid on the block to attempt what it’s doing.  And that same awareness applies to my criticisms, which is why I think it’s ultimately so enjoyable: I never got a sense that Langdon / Lobdell felt like they were smug and smirking over any cleverness of their creation, rather just riffing on a tune they dug.  The resultant performance has its rough edges, but is very much worth one’s viewing time.

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