Tuesday 19 February 2019

On demand: "Happy Death Day"

Happy Death Day is another of Blumhouse's bright ideas: a gorier Groundhog Day, in which a young college student is knifed to death on her birthday and then wakes up to find herself replaying the same events with an eye to avoiding that grisly fate. (This set-up was arrived at a full year before the current Netflix hit Russian Doll.) As the narrative string theory unravels, clues get scattered across the screen, both as to why the heroine (Jessica Rothe) might be stuck in this timeloop (something to do with the rejection of her dormmate's birthday cupcake, or indeed any other show of affection?) and the identity of her killer; our girl gets first more freaked, then smarter with each iteration of the same events, learning to swerve the red herrings and dead ends in the realities presented to her. What the writer Scott Lobdell and director Christopher Landon have done is found a way around that old gripe that slasher movies basically consist of stupid people doing mindless things, by centring their action on a protagonist who has to draw on her experiences and raise her game in order to stay alive. (She even gets a shape-up montage set to Demi Lovato's "Confident".) 

In that slick Blumhouse fashion, it runs on casters, always sensing which realities are worth poking around in and which ones need whizzing through to cut to the punchline; it's nifty and fun, like a well-told joke. Is it scary? Not especially, being more beholden to Mean Girls than it is to The House on Sorority Row. Much as Scream (another inspiration) used its various blades to hack away at and better organise all that was unruly and disreputable about earlier slashers, Happy Death Day inserts a MBA-armed commercial savvy between itself and anything like primal fear. Instead, you find yourself smiling at the soundtrack's conspicuously tolling bells, and the fact the heroine, Teresa, is commonly known as Tree: she grows before our eyes, using her nine lives to become sex- and body-positive, and to work through her more toxic relationships. This push for affirmation feels novel for the genre, but it occasions some softening: it's very much a 15 certificate, and even the killer's disguise (a baby's face) isn't quite as terrifying looming out of the dark as Scream's Munch mask. Still, on some nuts-and-bolts level, it works - and it's as good a showcase for Rothe as Groundhog Day was for Bill Murray, obliging the actress to cycle through terror, incomprehension, acceptance and blithe indifference en route to self-knowledge and the one reality in which she isn't in some way wasted. It may be the closest anyone's got to making a Buddhist slasher flick, which explains its considerable charm and novelty value - but also goes some way to nailing its limitations.

Happy Death Day is available on DVD through Universal, and to purchase via Amazon Prime; a sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, is now in cinemas, and will be reviewed here tomorrow.

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