Movie Review: ‘HAPPY DEATH DAY’ – Groundhog Slay


Courtney Howard // Film Critic


Rated PG-13, 96 minutes
Director: Christopher Landon
Cast: Jessica RotheIsrael BroussardRuby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken and Caleb Spillyards

Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.” It seems as if the filmmakers behind HAPPY DEATH DAY took those wise words to heart when creating their LIVE, DIE, REPEAT/ EDGE OF TOMORROW-esque, GROUNDHOG DAY-inspired horror flick. Although this high concept slasher pic directed by Christopher Landon borrows elements from those films and others, it blessedly does a few original things to make the formula feel fresh and fun.

It should be a day like any other day – only it’s not for Kappa sorority girl Teresa “Tree” Gelbman (Blake Lively Jessica Rothe). Today, which happens to be her birthday, is the day she dies at the hands of a cold-blooded killer in a buck-tooth, cherubic school mascot mask. Since our anti-heroine isn’t the nicest of people, the suspects begin to pile up immediately. There’s her insufferable Kappa sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), whose boyfriend she’s trying to steal; her mousy nursing student roommate Lori (Tall Alicia Vikander Ruby Modine), whose good advice never lands; married professor Gregory (Charles Aitken), whom she’s boffing; and her clingy bad date Tim (Jacked Max Greenfield Caleb Spillyards), who failed to impress. She soon finds out that until she catches this killer, she’s forced to relive this day over and over again. Aiding in her mission of discovery is college cutie Carter (Douglas Smith Israel Broussard), whose room she continues to wake in each morning.

Jessica Rothe and her killer in HAPPY DEATH DAY. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Landon, along with screenwriter Scott Lobdell, delivers cunning twists on genre tropes like the final girl, the suspect set-ups full of red herrings, and the inevitable “the killer isn’t dead yet” moment. Their kills are crafty and unexpected, never hitting any lulls. There’s an upbeat energy that buoys the picture – particularly evident during Tree’s catch a killer sequence set to Demi Lovato’s “Confident.” The fact that they also layer in a solid message about it never being too late to become a good person feels universal (pun intended!) – and more targeted, like something for teens and tweens (as their new favorite sleepover party jam). Plus, while there is a lot of comedy (you’ll laugh at how abhorrent Danielle is), like most good horror films of this kind, it’s also got a toe in the waters of a “grief movie.” So be prepared for your eyes to well up a little.

In order to retain clarity, Landon and cinematographer Toby Oliver change up the visual palette each new day. The effused warmth sours bit by bit. Not only do Tree’s reactions to events change, but so does her vision of these events, echoed through the use of different lenses and post-production techniques. Editing also plays a crucial role as Gregory Plotkin’s crisp cuts help keep up the energetic pace. Bear McCreary’s score is like an audible funhouse of horror film scores past. For example, their take on FRIDAY THE 13TH’s “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ah-Ah-Ah” sounds will probably delight you. Through the physicality of their stunt performers, the killer’s moves also mimic those of “Ghostface” in SCREAM. There’s also a loving homage to the iconic dining room table scene from SIXTEEN CANDLES, minus the Thompson Twins song (because that would’ve been too on-the-nose).

In reality, death isn’t typically a celebration. Ironically, the film coated in it is rather blissful. And thank goodness these filmmakers make it easy for audiences to walk out of the theater happy.

Grade: B+

HAPPY DEATH DAY opens on October 13.


About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.