A potential ripoff crafted into homage horror.
Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is a distracted college cliché going through the motions, waking up in the dorm room of nice-enough guy Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) with no memory of how she ended up there. With a telling look hinting this isn’t her post-party black out, Tree makes her way back to her sorority house, a stronghold of superficiality endured long enough to change clothes, show up late for class, and attempting to get some snogging in on one of her married professors before getting back to another night of campus partying… until she’s murdered by a baby-face-masked killer. Tree instantly awakens to find herself back in nice-guy’s dorm room — on the same day. No, it wasn’t a dream… but is there any escape?
The idea of living one day over and over isn’t new; the filmmakers were smart enough not to even try to disguise the main inspiration: Groundhog Day. Unfortunately, this is a horror film about a young woman being murdered repeatedly, essentially being terrorized for the benefit of the viewers. As a perfect vehicle for a Halloween movie, it also runs the gambit of celebrating violence toward women, a hot-button topic these days even when showcasing female empowerment to overcome victimization. Can a reworked Bill Murray vehicle featuring a lady lead manage to entertain while avoiding gratuitous exploitation and a traditional downer ending while still becoming a satisfying October slasher?
Short answer: yes, it can. To pull this off, a few rules needed to be both established and broken with regard to the obvious source material. There was no explanation given for Murray’s dayapalooza, while one is more specifically hinted at in Deathday but never confirmed; is that leaving the door open for a possible sequel? Similar to Murray’s film, the character of Tree is given ample opportunity to examine exactly who she’s become, all the while never confirming it has anything to do with what’s happening. Figuring out the rules is part of the mystery, but Deathday one-ups the groundhog by using those rules in Tree’s favor — clever girl. The end result is Tree rising above being a throwaway character by making the conscious decision to better herself on her own terms, and it’s intriguing if not downright amazing to watch: a horror film with heart.
While the story is all-important, actor Jessica Rothe has to carry the film to make it work. Tree is underplayed from the very beginning, but Rothe never quite pushes enough past superficial into a lead with presence. To be honest, this probably serves the character best; if Tree had fully transformed from distracted doormat instantly into Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in spite of an underwhelming but earnest attempt to do so), it would have been disingenuous if successful. Rothe fits the bill as someone who steps up because she has to, not because she’s a secret badass who only needed a push to become a Supergirl. This also assists in keeping up the danger level and the audience guessing along with the main character.
Filmmakers were also keen on moving away from the gratuity of slaughtering their main character, opting instead on POV angles that put the audience in Tree’s shoes. You can feel her frustration with each failure and the hopelessness in discovering that, unlike Murray, Tree may not have an unlimited number of lives to do whatever it is she has to do. Is it all futile? Is she in Hell? It’s that point of drama and showcasing a character willing to overcome instead of rolling over that elevates this above typical set-them-up-knock-them-down slasher fare. Deathday is a clever psychological horror mystery that dares to ask, “Why aren’t you living every day as if it were your last?”
Happy Death Day is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material, partial nudity, and the worst college sports mascot ever.
Three skull recommendation out of four