Happy Death Day—I stayed away from this movie for a long time, figuring it was just another entry in a long list of sorority “slasher” films. I mean, we’ve had (just in the College/University Slasher genre) films like Sorority Row; The House on Sorority Row; Sorority Row Massacre; Black Christmas (twice!); Hell Night; The Initiation—and a lot more. If one went by movies as a reflection of reality, it would be a wonder that anyone who went to college would join a sorority. And let’s not forget the TV series Scream Queens—which, while killing off various “sisters,” also suggests that sorority women are all rich, entitled little “biatches” whose interests are shallower than their overstuffed pocketbooks.
Although most of what I know of fraternities/sororities comes from books, TV and movies, I did spend a night in a TKE fraternity house in Chico, California, back in the 1960s, thanks to a good friend who was a member. I figure the reality is somewhat similar to sorority life and not a lot like TV, movies, and books. These are young people—many with money, some without—who have a support system for college; many college/university students don’t have that.
So, having to wait until my wife returned from a trip to Missouri before I could go see The Last Jedi, for example, I settled for Happy Death Day to soothe my B-movie cravings. Since you are presumed to have read a description and already know this is another “repeating time” or “time looping” movie (à la Groundhog Day), the fact that the Universal logo stops and restarts a couple of times before the movie actually starts will presumably be an in-joke between you and the filmmakers.
The action takes place at Bayfield University (in actuality, Tulane University in Louisiana), whose mascot is a giant baby (see Figure 1). Go, Bayfield Babies! Tree (short for Teresa) Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), wakes up in a dorm room belonging to Carter (Israel Broussard) and his roommate. Tree is a reasonably attractive blonde (who looks older than Carter), but you can tell right away she’s one of those self-absorbed, entitled kinda people… she wakes up wearing a sweatshirt and undies, and quickly changes back into a silver lamé top, black stretch pants, and red high heels; then asks Carter—he says his name a couple of times, but you can tell she doesn’t care—if he has any Tylenol®. Scarfing down a few without benefit of the water bottle he offers, she says “Not a word of this to anyone,” and starts to exit. As the door opens, Carter’s roommate, a young Asian man with bleached blond hair is entering, saying “Did you hit that fine vagine…” and Tree smirks at him as she leaves. Carter says to his roomie, “Nice one, dickhead!”
So far, it’s like what I imagine any college slasher movie to be… I have to guess because I’ve only seen one or two, and those were years ago. On her way out of his dorm and heading back to her sorority house, Tree encounters a Goth guy who looks over his sunglasses at her; a young woman looking for signatures on a global warming petition; a young couple studying on the grass who are surprised when the sprinklers turn on, and more. These are all noticeable things we’re supposed to remember. As she sneaks into the Kappa Pi Lambda house, she’s accosted by Danielle (Rachel Matthews), who calls her a “sneaky biatch,” and tells her to be at the house meeting at lunch. When she gets to her room, her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine—who, oddly enough, bears some facial resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence) gives her a cupcake with a candle on it to celebrate her birthday, and Tree blows the candle out and drops the cupcake in the wastebasket, disappointing Lori, who handmade the cupcake. Kappas don’t eat cupcakes because of the carbs, y’see (another sign of her entitlement).
So the day goes on like that; at the mandatory lunch meeting one young woman who shows up late actually bringing a lunch is fat-shamed; Carter brings by Tree’s bracelet, which she forgot—and she is accidentally drenched in chocolate milk. Later that evening, on her way to a party, she is attacked by someone wearing a baby mask (Figure 1)…and stabbed to death!
Surprise! She wakes up, it’s the same day and the same time (9 a.m. on Monday the 18th), she’s in the dorm room with Carter—lather, rinse, repeat. Just like oh, I dunno, Edge of Tomorrow: Live, Die, Repeat, with Tom Cruise, or the aforementioned Groundhog Day, or any number of movies that use repeating time loops to either teach the protagonist something or to accomplish something or other.
Did you know that the first actual time-looping movie, according to Wik-o-Pedia (as opposed to just one where time is reset once, or an alternate world-type timeline shift, or just a time-travel movie like The Time Machine (either version: the 1960 original with Rod Taylor or the utterly forgettable 2002 remake with Guy Pierce), or Timecop, with Jean-Claude Van Damme, was actually a 25-minute short that came out in 1990.
That one was called 12:01 P.M.; it starred Kurtwood Smith (Clarence Boddicker in the original Robocop), and was based on a short story (“12:01 P.M.”) published in F&SF by Richard Lupoff. The short was nominated for an Academy Award, and spawned a 1993 full-length movie called 12:01.
There was, apparently, a lawsuit by Lupoff and the movie’s director, a guy named Heap (this again according to Wikipedia) against Groundhog Day—which came out the same year—but the suit was ultimately dropped. GD, as practically everyone knows—concerns the inexplicable looping of Philadelphia TV weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, a guy who brought the art of playing sleazy characters to a fine art; Connors eventually learns what a jerk he is, and after what appears to have been literal years looping the same 24 hours over and over, redeems himself as a human being, gets the girl (as the saying goes), and is released from the loop.
Well, Tree undergoes somewhat of the same transformation, after she smartens up and enlists Carter to her cause. (Of course, she has to explain things to him more than once, as he forgets everything every time the day resets). No big spoilers, but you can probably guess what happens overall. (Watch for the clever self-referential conversation in the coffee shop near the end.) There’s very little new in this movie, aside from one part where we discover that, although the day resets, Tree retains internal scar tissue from multiple knife attacks… and she suspects she may not have that many iterations left before it’s all over for her.
What sets this movie apart, and makes it worth watching (in my opinion, of course) is the light tone—they don’t attempt, really, to make it scary like most slasher films; instead, they focus on the humour of Tree finding out what’s going on and trying to figure out who the killer is (the killer, like the one in the Scream franchise, wears a mask; it’s the Bayfield Baby, shown in Figure 1) and why said killer is doing it. The second reason is solely down to Jessica Rothe—although you loathe her character in the beginning, you slowly begin to appreciate not only her journey as a character, but also the skill of the actress herself in portraying that character’s journey. Eventually—if you’re at all like me—you’ll find yourself liking and rooting for Tree. I will give this film a solid three (Tree?) whatsits, so: ¤¤¤. I’d like to give it three-plus, but the story idea’s not exactly new, is it?
LAST NOTES: I had a pretty good couple of weeks for movies, some of which I will be reviewing (or have already reviewed): genre movies like Thor: Ragnarok; The Shape of Water; Happy Death Day; and non-genre movies I won’t be reviewing like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Darkest Hour—top-notch movies I wish I could review here! Although T:R was CGI-heavy (well, it had to be, didn’t it?), it had humour and character as well as plot; Liam Hemsworth showed he had great comedic chops inside a character, as did Mark Ruffalo (playing both Hulk and Banner) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki). Karl Urban did a great job as Skurje, and Idris Elba continues to impress, even though they still don’t give him a lot to do as an actor. Cate Blanchett did the best she could with a one-sided character. The secondary characters, like The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Korg (Taika Waititi), and the Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), just were stellar, in my opinion. If you like the MCU and you haven’t seen this, I urge you to do so. And stick around for the two end-credit bits.
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