Happy Death Day proves a smart take on hor­ror genre

Times Colonist - - Arts - RICK BENT­LEY


Happy Death Day Where: Cine­plex Odeon West­shore, Sil­verCity Star­ring: Jes­sica Rothe, Is­rael Brous­sard, Ruby Mo­dine Di­rected by: Christo­pher Lan­don Parental ad­vi­sory: 14A Rat­ing: Three stars (out of four)

Happy Death Day, the story of a wo­man who’s caught in an end­less loop of her own death, fol­lows in the foot­steps of Get Out by tak­ing fa­mil­iar el­e­ments from the hor­ror genre, but de­liv­er­ing the scares with more wit, wis­dom and won­der.

It starts with Tree Gelb­man (Jes­sica Rothe), a soror­ity sis­ter in des­per­ate need of some sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing, wak­ing up in a strange col­lege dorm room. Her meet­ing with the dorm’s oc­cu­pant, the sweet and naive Carter Davis (Is­rael Brous­sard), is the start of a string of hu­mil­i­at­ing mo­ments mag­ni­fied by it be­ing Tree’s birth­day. Her suf­fer­ing comes to an end when a man dressed in all black wear­ing a baby face mask at­tacks and kills her.

Tree wakes the next morn­ing (that’s re­ally the same morn­ing) with a ma­jor sense of déjà vu and, ul­ti­mately, a mur­der­ous end to her day. It only takes Tree three or four times of be­ing killed be­fore she re­al­izes that un­til she fig­ures out the iden­tity of her killer, the day will con­tinue to re­peat. But each time Tree awak­ens, she’s a bit weaker.

The real killer here (fig­u­ra­tively speak­ing) is that the sus­pect list is mas­sively long be­cause of Tree’s lack of car­ing for any­one but her­self.

This is where Happy Death Day takes a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the genre. Scott Lob­dell’s script fea­tures many tropes from the hor­ror film world. It starts with the cen­tral fig­ure of Tree, a beau­ti­ful blonde who al­ways seems to be wear­ing the wrong shoes to run away from her killer. But in a twist, she ends up be­ing both the vic­tim and saviour in this story.

Happy Death Day has a body count to ri­val most hor­ror movies. But, be­cause al­most all the deaths are of the same per­son, the count could also be seen as very small. Ei­ther way, the best place where Happy Death Day departs from the tried-and-true hor­ror for­mat is hav­ing Tree be the sub­ject of all the at­tacks. In a stan­dard hor­ror movie, the only fun is guess­ing in which or­der those trapped in an old man­sion, camp­ground, soror­ity house, etc. will be killed. Since that’s not in the equa­tion, the fo­cus goes from a mor­bid game of chance to a smart who­dunit.

The film also fea­tures a creepy killer who cov­ers his iden­tity with a strange mask. A hockey mask for a killer im­me­di­ately sug­gests there’s vi­o­lence in the heart of the per­son wear­ing it. The chubby-cheeked baby­face mask shouldn’t be that creepy but there’s a strangeness to the de­sign that makes it work.

Tree re­lives her death day re­peat­edly and it’s ob­vi­ous that some­how, the killer is go­ing to find her. Even with that knowl­edge, Lob­dell’s script is so smartly writ­ten that each end­ing comes as a sur­prise.

There’s a lot more that could be said about the smart way Lob­dell plays out the story, but that would be un­fair to the movie­goer. Just know, his writ­ing is on tar­get to the point that he doesn’t cheat with the plot and leaves no story strand dan­gling.

A lot of credit for Happy Death Day be­ing worth see­ing again and again is the per­for­mance by Rothe (Mary + Jane). She is be­liev­able as the snotty soror­ity sis­ter, the scared and con­fused mur­der vic­tim, and the strong wo­man who not only finds clues about her killer with each death, but learns a lot about her­self. It’s a de­mand­ing task be­cause Rothe is in ev­ery scene but she steps up no mat­ter if it means dy­ing or try­ing.

The film also has time for the kind of lev­ity that rarely pops up in a se­ri­ous hor­ror film. One of the jokes is a re­flec­tion of how this story of liv­ing the same day over and over sounds a lot like the plot of the Bill Mur­ray com­edy Ground­hog Day. When it’s pointed out to her, Tree says she’s never heard of the film or Mur­ray.

Di­rec­tor Christo­pher Lan­don (Scouts Guide the Zom­bie Apoc­a­lypse) has cre­ated in Happy Death Day a film that has scary mo­ments, but is not bur­dened by the end­less slaugh­ter that so many hor­ror film mak­ers mis­tak­enly use. The film­maker and writer also never give into the kind of gra­tu­itous sex that is al­ways a sig­nal in a stan­dard hor­ror film that some­one or a cou­ple is about to die.

If all you want out of a hor­ror film is blood and guts, Happy Death Day isn’t the right movie for you. Any­one look­ing to en­joy some scares while try­ing to fig­ure out a very clever mys­tery should plan on see­ing Happy Death Day.

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