Happy Death Day

It’s been a while since something in a horror movie shocked or surprised me. There may be nothing new under the sun, but in Happy Death Day – the recent slasher film from director Christopher B. Landon, whose low budget Paranormal Activity flicks went from bad to worse – the killer in a baby mask is completely different than all the hockey masked stalkers in other pictures. Designed by Tony Gardner (the guy behind the Ghostface mask from Scream), the buck-toothed, pie-faced school mascot doesn’t necessarily hide a person but a challenge!

Jessica Rothe (La La Land) plays Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, the snarky sorority sister who is inconsiderate of everybody else on the Bayfield University campus. She sleeps around, is having an affair with a married professor and gets way too wasted. And she awakes day after day to the realization that someone is trying to kill her!

Continuously compared to Groundhog Day, the splendor of watching this slasher loop is the elastic expression Rothe brings to her numerous recurring dorm room slumbers. Awakened on her birthday in the company of Carter, whom she met the night before during her pre-birthday celebration, events unfold precisely in the same pattern as all her other days, leading to her being stalked and murdered in various ways, from stabbings to strangulation. Typical, right? Seen it all before, hmmm? Not so fast!

While in most slasher films the killer is your luck-of-the-draw supernatural axe-wielder delivering retribution for some unforgivable transgression or moral mistake, Happy Death Day covers those usual bases, but here the lead victim, though promiscuous, is given an opportunity (sort of her daily visit to Purgatory) to solve her own murder, and by so doing set things back on the right path. But as her revolving days reveal her background, it turns out that she is someone who could make a difference in the lives of those around her. She’s not being punished, nor is she cheating death, but each time she gets killed she’s being educated for a higher purpose.

I was immediately reminded of Pietro Gemi’s Divorce Italian Style more so than Groundhog Day by the way Tree’s life is an elaborate chess match, and like Marcello Mastoianni in Divorce Italian Style ponders the various ways he can dispose of his annoying wife to be with his nubile cousin, Tree maneuvers through her days to discover who it is that wants her dead!

College life is the perfect setting for a rote sequential repeat of days. The students’ daily grind consists of waking up, going to class, eating just enough, having escaped from parental supervision so as to unwind until the wee hours. Sororities and fraternities demand conformity and allegiance, and once it’s finished all you have to look forward to is doing it all over again. Happy Death Day is as much an indictment of college as Divorce Italian Style is an indictment of the restrictive customs of its time period.

Though many write off low budget thrills, it’s my point of origin, how I started to develop an interest in films, and I’ve always considered them to be about something more that what appears on the surface.

Recent horror has been hard to defend. It, mother! and Raw forgot that true horror is always relatable. Happy Death Day is a return to films like John Carpenter’s Halloween that link humor to its horror, making the improbable seem even more possible. Other looped-time plotlines from Run Lola Run to Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow have used repetition, but Happy Death Day introduces a twist: karma ain’t coming for you! It’s the challenge of learning from your daily revolving door that provides a key insight, and Tree grows into what Jack Lemmon refers to in The Apartment as “a human being rather than a chair.”

A stalker wearing a baby mask killing college “mean girls” would be enough plot for some to sell tickets.

As a celebration of the unsung goodness of the human spirit, Happy Death Day broadens into inspired redemption that recognizes that in horror there’s hope for a better tomorrow.