The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Happy Death Day

I did not expect Happy Death Day to be as much fun as it is. The movie – from Christopher Landon, the writer of the second, third, and fourth Paranormal Activity films – is essentially a horror-themed take on Groundhog Day. That concept could have gone massively wrong. There was already another movie this year with a similar premise, the also surprisingly good Before I Fall, which would seem to bode even worse for this one's chances, making it feel a day late and a dollar short. A slightly self-aware spirit helps Happy Death Day to find its own footing, though.

Jessica Rothe (La La Land) plays snooty college student Tree Gelbman. When we first meet her, she wakes up in the dorm room of a strange guy, Carter (Isreal Broussard). It's not a great way to kick off her birthday. Getting murdered that evening doesn't make things any better. Right at the moment of her death, she wakes up in Carter's room once more, and the whole cycle repeats several more times from there. Eventually, Tree realizes that the only way to move on from this temporal loop is to solve her own murder.

There are plenty of suspects: a jealous sorority sister, the professor she's having an affair with, the professor's wife, her mousy roommate, the creepy guy she rejected, maybe even Carter.

As a horror movie, Happy Death Day is “teenager scary.” That is to say, 14- and 15-year old kids who haven't seen much horror fare will go to it in groups and get a few decent jolts. Adults who have seen more than three fright flicks in their life may appreciate the execution of the scenes where Tree meets her maker, but probably won't feel their pulses quickening. Most likely in order to obtain a teen-friendly PG-13 rating, the film isn't exactly heavy-duty in the attempts to terrify. It this ain't.

Grown-ups can, however, take great pleasure in the fact that Happy Death Day is as much a dark comedy as it is a horror film. And it's a pretty darn funny one, at that. The central joke is that Tree is a rotten person who treats everyone around her with behaviors that run the gamut from condescending to cruel. Being made to die a gruesome death over and over initially frustrates her, then drags her kicking and screaming into the realm of being a good person. Scott Lobdell's screenplay makes some winking nods to how that punishing transition is forced upon her, particularly in an inspired montage set to Demi Lovato's “Confident” in which Tree does reconnaissance on all the people who might want to kill her. She stays very busy.

Jessica Rothe is the glue that holds everything together. If she doesn't become a star from this role, something is very wrong with the movie universe. As Tree, she is required to play just about every emotion under the sun. Rothe expertly shows how the character greets each repeat day with a different attitude: confusion, fear, irritation, outright anger, cheeriness, and, ultimately, acceptance. The actress nails the comedic moments, while also effectively conveying Tree's terror each time the masked killer appears. The shift from bitch to sweetheart feels natural in her hands.

The mixture of humor and horror works, giving Happy Death Day a bit of a retro feel. It hearkens back to '80s chillers like Night of the Demons and Night of the Comet that used the genre to satirically comment on the social mores of young people. The killer's identity is cleverly revealed, but the true pleasure here is watching how a mean girl betters herself by receiving a wittily existential dose of her own medicine.

( out of four)

Happy Death Day is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.

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