Wednesday, November 15, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Happy Death Day

I'm woefully behind on my movie reviews lately, so I'm gonna do my best to catch up!

Happy Death Day was written by Scott Lobdell and directed by Christopher B. Landon.

Lobdell is primarily a comic book writer, who worked on many Marvel series such as X-Men, Generation X, Daredevil and Alpha Flight, along with Teen Titans for DC. He's 
written comics for various other companies as well. This appears to be his first theatrical writing credit.

Landon is a writer and director, as well as the son of TV legend Michael Landon. He previously wrote Another Day In Paradise, Blood & Chocolate, Disturbia, Paranormal Activity 2, 3 and 4 and Viral. He wrote and directed Burning Palms, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse.

I honestly wasn't expecting much from this film, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. Happy Death Day is a fun and tightly constructed film that's actually smart, which is a rarity these days at the box office. Best of all, It establishes a logical set of rules and then sticks to them. Eh, for the most part. Unfortunately the plot train flies off the track late in the third act, but if you can overlook that it's not a bad little movie.

Most critics are calling Happy Death Day a mix between Scream and Groundhog Day, and that's actually a pretty apt description. It takes the self-aware, deconstructionist attitude and murder mystery of Scream and combines it seamlessly with the time-looping shenanigans of Groundhog Day.

Director Christopher Landon even admitted in an interview that the film shamelessly copies Groundhog Day's concept and structure. Eh, I don't see that as a problem. Although Groundhog Day is undoubtedly the most popular and well known instance of the Time Loop Story, it didn't invent the concept by any means. As near as I can tell the idea's been around for decades, first appearing in the short story Doubled And Redoubled in the February, 1941 issue of Unknown magazine (it's possible there are even earlier instances of the concept). 

There's nothing wrong with using an existing plotline or concept as a starting off point, as long as you bring something new to the table. Fortunately Happy Death Day does this, by grafting the slasher movie angle onto the Loop, and giving main character Tree a deadline for solving her own murder.

Oddly enough, there's very little gore to be found in Happy Death Day. In fact, for a horror film it's strangely... polite, for lack of a better word. For example, Tree's supposedly a typical Mean Girl student, but not really, as she never seems anywhere near as bad as her snooty sorority sisters. This applies to most of the other characters as well— they're all designed to be college stereotypes, but none of them ever quite seem to fit into their predetermined roles.

The film's been in Development Hell for an entire decade, as it was first announced way back in 2007, when it was inexplicably titled Half To Death. At that time Michael Bay (!) was set to produce, with Megan Fox (of course) starring. Let's all thank the Movie Gods that that awful, explosion-filled version of the movie never got made!

Many years later, the script surfaced again, and was optioned by Blumhouse Productions in 2016. Blumhouse is on fire lately, as they've put out a series of low budget, high grossing little films that have absolutely cleaned up at the box office. They're responsible for the Paranormal Activity and The Purge franchises, as well as the recent Split and Get Out.

Universal Studios really needs to take a look at Blumhouse's business model and copy it wholesale. Instead of inexplicably trying to turn their Universal Monsters characters into Marvel superheroes (I'm lookin' at you, The Mummy), they could feature them in a series of small, atmospheric and genuinely scary movies. Then they could sit back and watch the money roll in!

So far the Happy Death Day's a box office hit, grossing $88 million worldwide against its tiny $5 million budget! Impressive! You know what that means— look for Happy Death Day II: The Deathening sometime next year!


The Plot:
It's Monday the 18th, which just happens to be Bayfield College student "Tree" Gelbman's (oy gevalt!) birthday. She wakes up from a drunken stupor in the dorm room of fellow student Carter Davis. Her phone rings, but when she sees it's her estranged father she ignores it. She asks for some aspirin, and as she heads out the door she runs into Carter's roommate Ryan, who asks if he slept with Tree. Awkward!

As Tree walks across the campus, she sees a series of events that'll become very important later on. She passes a Goth student who leers at her, a girl who tries to get her to sign a global warming petition, a smooching couple sitting on the grass who get soaked when the sprinklers come on, a car with a blaring alarm that no one pays any attention to and a frat pledge who passes out during his hazing. She also runs into Tim, a student she dated once, who's now obsessed with her (Suspect #1!).

She returns to her dorm room, where her roommate Lori Spengler, who's a nursing student, proudly presents her with a cupcake she baked from scratch. Tree blows out the candle and dumps the cupcake in the trash, dismissively stating "it's loaded with carbs." This visibly angers Lori, who folds her arms and glares at Tree as she leaves (Suspect #2!). 

Tree then meets with Professor Gregory Butler in his office. Tree's in one of his classes, and is secretly having an affair with him. Gregory's wife Stephanie unexpectedly shows up, and he nervously acts as if he and Tree were discussing classwork. Stephanie obviously doesn't buy it, and icily eyes Tree as she hurriedly leaves (Suspect #3!).

Tree then joins Danielle Bouseman and her fellow snotty sorority sisters for a meeting about the big Spring Dance. Carter walks by and accidentally spills his food on Tree. He apologizes and tries to return a bracelet she left in his dorm, but she hushes him up as she doesn't want her sisters knowing she spent the night with such a loser.

That night Tree walks alone through the dark, foreboding campus, on her way to a party. She passes a group of rowdy guys wearing "Bayfield Babies" merch. Yes, you read right, this school's mascot is a giant baby (!). As she walks under a bridge, she sees a music box sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, chiming away. She turns around to see a figure in a Bayfield Baby mask, staring ominously at her. Tree takes off running, and is chased by the Baby Killer. It catches her and stabs her to death (!). The End.

Tree then wakes up in Carter's room, thinking it was all a dream. She asks for aspirin and runs into Ryan again. Outside, she experiences the same events she saw the day before— Goth, global warming girl, soaked couple, car alarm, frat pledge. She's visibly confused by this, but passes it off as simple deja vu.

Tree enters her room, where Lori gives her another cupcake, but this time she sets it on a dresser instead of throwing it in the trash (this detail's important, as it shows us Tree can change the events of the day). She meets with her sisters at lunch and Carter dumps his food on her again.

That night Tree walks to the party once more, but this time avoids the bridge. She arrives and sees it's really a surprise party for her, organized by Danielle. Suddenly a figure in a Baby mask appears, and Tree's so flustered she punches him in the face. The figure turns out to be Nick, Danielle's boyfriend. Tree enjoys the party, and later gets a text from Danielle, accusing her of hooking up with Nick (Suspect #4). 

For some reason, Tree wanders up to Nick's room. He puts on the Baby mask and tries to scare her, which doesn't work. She's REALLY scared though when the Baby Killer appears and stabs Nick. He then grabs a bong, breaks it in half and stabs Tree with a shard of glass.

Tree wakes up in Carter's room again. She runs outside and sees the same five events, and finally realizes she's stuck in some sort of time loop and is reliving the same day over and over. Lori tells her to relax and get some sleep. Tree locks the room tight and even boards up the windows (!) so the Baby Killer can't get in. It doesn't work, as he crashes into the room and stabs her anyway.

Tree wakes up in Carter's room, and this time explains the situation to him. He doesn't believe her until they go outside and she perfectly predicts the five events. They go through a list of suspects, trying to figure out who keeps killing her. For some reason, Carter believes that if Tree figures out who the killer is, she'll be free of the time loop.

Tree then lives through her birthday several more times, investigating and eliminating various suspects. She rules out Tim after finding out he's secretly gay (not sure why that would prevent him from trying to kill her, but whatever). She tails Greg's wife Stephanie, but is drowned by the Baby Killer while doing so, ruling her out. She also accuses Danielle, but the two of them begin fighting and both are killed by a bus (!).

Tree wakes up in pain and goes to the hospital, where x-rays show her numerous deaths are somehow adding up, causing internal injuries and other traumas. The doctor says by all rights she should be dead, which means her investigation now has a countdown. While in the infirmary, she goes to Gregory's office (I guess he's a doctor as well as a professor?), suspecting him of being the Baby Killer. She roots through his office, finding a Baby mask in a drawer.

Gregory returns, but before she can accuse him, he's stabbed by the actual Baby Killer. She runs through the parking lot, steals a car and flies off. She thinks she's finally escaped the curse, until she's stopped by the police. She lies and says she's drunk so she'll be thrown in a cell, safe from the Killer.

The cop cuffs her and puts her in the back of his car. Suddenly he's mowed down as the Baby Killer crashes his car into the police cruiser, causing its gas tank to leak. The Baby Killer then drops a lit candle onto the stream of leaking gas (which is a big clue!) and Tree's blown up real good.

She wakes in Carter's room, and has to convince him all over again that she's reliving the same day. She notes that she's getting weaker each time through the loop, and worries she'll die for real before finding out who the Killer is and preventing her death. Just then Tree sees a news report on the capture of notorious serial killer Joseph Tombs, who targets young coeds. She's convinced Tombs must be the Baby Killer (which of course is way too obvious).

Tree and Carter enter the hospital, determined to stop Tombs, but see he's already escaped his restraints and killed the security guard posted outside his room. Tombs grabs Carter and snaps his neck, and Tree grabs a fire axe and runs. She hides in an empty room and when Tombs enters, she attacks him. She's about to deliver the killing blow, when she realizes if she eliminates Tombs, she's sentenced Carter to permanent death. She then climbs to the top of a bell tower, tells Tombs she'll see him soon and hangs herself (!).

She wakes up in Carter's room, and enjoys her last time through the loop. She signs the petition, warns the students before they're soaked and places a pillow under the fainting frat pledge. She tells Tim she knows his secret, and to be himself. She then breaks up with Gregory and drops his class. She even eats a tray full of junk food in front of her snotty sorority sisters, going so far as to pour chocolate milk over Danielle's head.

Tree then meets her dad for lunch and attempts to reconnect with him. She says it's been hard for her to see him since her mom died, but promises to try and be a better person.

That night Tree goes to the hospital, and instead of simply warning the guard that Tombs is about to escape, she pulls a knife on him, takes his gun, and tells him to go get backup. She then enters the room, sees Tombs asleep and pulls the trigger. Unfortunately it doesn't go off, as she's apparently never heard of a safety switch. Just then Tombs leaps out of bed and slams her against the wall. There's a momentary power outage (that happens at the same time every day), which takes Tombs off guard. Tree grabs the gun and shoots him dead.

With the danger seemingly passed, Tree returns to her dorm room. Really? 
So I guess the authorities has no questions for her after she threatened a guard and killed a prisoner in cold blood? Apparently not. She calls Carter and invites him to her room. Carter admits that the two of them have never had sex— she simply passed out in his room and he put her to bed. She decides to remedy that, and they sleep together. She sees the birthday cupcake Lori made for her and decides to eat it (MAJOR CLUE!).

Tree then wakes up again in Carter's room, and realizes she's still in the loop
. Even though she killed Tombs, somehow she still died again. She returns to her room and Lori offers her a homemade cupcake again. Suddenly Tree realizes that she never ate the cupcake in any of the other previous loops. The cupcake was poisoned, and Lori's the Baby Killer! 

When Tree accuses her, Lori immediately starts monologuing and admits she's the killer. She says that 
as a nursing student it was easy to free Tombs and make him look like a suspect in Tree's murder. The only thing Tree can't figure out is why. Lori says it's because she was in love with Gregory, but Tree stole him from her. Really, that's it? Even Tree thinks this is a stupid and lame motive, and says so. Lori attacks her, and the two begin fighting. Tree grabs the poisoned cupcake and shoves it into Lori's mouth, then pushes her out the window for good measure. Lori falls to her death, and thankfully doesn't get back up. 

Later Tree and Carter watch a news report on the incident. Carter says the whole thing reminds him of the movie Groundhog Day, but Tree says she's never heard of it. Oh, meta humor, you're hilarious!

The next day Tree wakes up in Carter's dorm room, and for a horrified second thinks she's still stuck in the loop. Carter finally tells her it's Tuesday the 19th, and they laugh and laugh.

• I don't have a lot to say about this film, so this'll be short.

• So... Tree's college team is called the "Bayfield Babies." Yep, that's right, the Babies. I can't find any images of it online yet, but their school mascot looks very much like that of the Big Boy restaurant chain. Wow, I bet a large, goofy-looking baby will really strike fear in the opposing team!

• Not a nitpick, just an observation: Even though its never stated onscreen, the movie takes place in New Orleans. About halfway through the film Tree's arrested by a police officer. If you look closely, he has a Louisiana-shaped patch on the arms of his jacket.

For some reason, everyone at Tree's birthday party is drinking out of blue plastic cups. I honestly don't think I've ever seen blue ones before, as they're almost always red.

This makes me wonder if there was some kind of product placement issue? Like the Solo company wanted too much money to use their red cups in the film? Or maybe they didn't want their product associated with a slasher movie, and the prop department had to scramble and find a different color?

• In Harold Ramis' classic film Groundhog Day, main character Phil Connors wakes up to find himself in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over and over again. When he discovers there's no way out of the loop, he goes through the Five Stages Of Grief.

Tree goes through a similar, if not quite as elaborate, scenario in Happy Death Day

At first Phil doesn't believe the same day's repeating itself, and he has to go through the loop several times before he finally realizes what's happening.

At first Tree Gelbman doesn't believe the same day's repeating itself, and she has to go through the loop several times before he finally realizes what's happening.

After a few times through the loop, Phil angrily smashes his alarm clock that plays the same song every morning.

After a few times through the loop, Tree angrily throws her cell phone across the room when it plays the same ringtone every morning. In addition, she's mighty pissed when she finds out she has to die every day until she can figure out who killed her.

Phil "bargains" when he visits a psychiatrist, who he believes can somehow fix him and get him out of the loop.

Tree sort of "bargains" when she confides in Carter and asks him for help. The two then try to figure out who the Baby Killer could be.

Phil eventually lapses into a deep depression, spending all day watching TV. He also tries killing himself multiple times in an effort to escape the loop (it doesn't work).

Tree sort of falls into a depression when she learns that each of her deaths is weakening her, and she has to find her killer before it's too late.

Phil eventually accepts his situation, and uses the time loop to better himself as a person. Once he becomes the best person he can be, he's released from the loop.

Tree eventually accepts her situation, and goes through one last "Perfect Day," righting various wrongs, helping those around her and ultimately becoming a better person. She finally finds her killer and kills them, which releases her from the loop.

• Here's a fun question to ponder in the shower: Just how does this Time Loop work? Is Tree stuck inside some sort of tiny bubble universe in which the same day plays over and over, and then once she prevents her death she returns to the our reality? Or is the entire world stuck in the Time Loop with her? Did you and I and everyone in the world have to relive the same day over and over again just so one snooty sorority girl could learn to be a better person?

Happy Death Day manages to add an interesting new wrinkle to the Time Loop Story. See, every time Tree's killed in a new way each time through the loop, she wakes up again the next morning with a corresponding injury. The injuries aren't life threatening at first— for example, she wakes up with a stiff neck after being choked— but they're cumulative. She realizes that each time she's killed brings her a little closer to permanent death.

This gives her investigation a time limit and a new urgency, and is a clever addition to the concept.

• Very late in the film, the movie introduces us to serial killer Joseph Tombs, who Tree believes is the one killing her. Really? A killer called Tombs? Who named this character, Charles Dickens?

• Will Tombs still manage to escape and kill the hospital guard one last time?

Lori admits she loosened Tombs' restraints so he could escape. Since he's a known serial killer, the police would automatically suspect him of killing Tree instead of Lori. But just when did Lori free Tombs? 

If Tree killed Lori before she had a chance to loosen Tombs's straps, then everything's OK. Tomb's won't break free, won't kill the guard and won't escape into the night. But if Tree killed Lori after she freed him, then Tombs' is gonna kill the guard and escape one last time.

• As I said earlier, the film goes off the rails in the third act with the surprise reveal that Tree's roommate Lori is the Baby Killer. I was with the film all the way up to that point, but this particular revelation was a bit hard to accept. 

Why's that? Because all through the movie we see the Baby Killer exhibiting what could only be described as superstrength. On several occasions she grabs Tree and literally tosses her across the room. Heck, she even does much the same to Danielle's boyfriend Nick as she lifts him off the ground and stabs him before tossing him away like an old shirt. 

Call me an out-of-touch old dinosaur if you want, but it's a simple fact of human existence that women have less upper body strength than men. Especially a woman as thin and willowy as Lori. There's no way in hell she could have throw another human being around as easily as she did.

The only way this could have worked is if Lori— who's a medical student— raided the hospital's medical locker for steroids.

Lori's motivation is pretty dodgy as well. Once she's revealed as the Baby Killer, Tree asks her why she wants to kill her. Lori replies that she was secretly in love with Gregory, and Tree stole him away from her. Really? That's it? She becomes a goddamned slasher movie villain over a man? Jesus Christ! Puncture Tree's tires, key her car or post nude photos of her on Facebook, but don't MURDER her over a guy!

• Tree ends up shoving Lori out their dorm room window, killing her. Since Tree's not in prison at the end of the movie, I guess the police must have believed her story that her roommate was an insane murderer, and that she killed her in self defense.

• At the very end of the movie, Carter says the whole Time Loop incident reminds him of the movie Groundhog Day. Tree replies that she's never heard of the movie before. 

This is called "lampshading" in the script writing biz. The idea here is that by deliberately calling attention to a plot hole or other implausibility in the script, the writer diffuses the problem, which robs his critics of their ammunition. Nice try.

Happy Death Day is a fun little slasher film that's much better than it has any right to be. It borrows elements liberally from Groundhog Day, but actually manages to put a new and interesting spin on them. It falls apart a bit late in the third act, but it's still worth a look. I give it a good solid B.

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