Blu-ray Review: Happy Death Day

Right out of the gate there’s no denying that Happy Death Day is the Groundhog Day of the horror genre. That’s what everyone who knows of Groundhog Day thought when they saw the trailer, and it’s very likely how the movie got pitched to the studios in the first place – and there’s nothing wrong with that. While the premise may be familiar on that front, it’s still nice to see a teen slasher flick attempt to do something somewhat unique and fun with the often played out and by the numbers formula.

Now I only watched about 20-minutes of the TV show Scream Queens, and knew it just wasn’t for me. Maybe I didn’t give it the proper chance, but I just didn’t like how it presented itself and the ridiculousness of the first few scenes, and sometimes that’s all the time you have to hook a viewer. On many levels, Happy Death Day lives in that same sort of Scream Queens world, in the sense that the college our leading lady, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) attends is filled to the brim with stereotypes to the extreme, and as a whole, the characters and world they live in never really seems like it’s reality…it feels like it’s a movie.

While Scream looked to somewhat parody and rib on the horror genre, it also felt like the characters were real, the stakes were real, and it still took itself seriously. It was also able to be as scary as it was funny, and broke new ground for the genre at the same time as it retreaded the old. Happy Death Day doesn’t take itself seriously, and it’s not a scary movie. There are some moments within it that could be considered creepy, but most are what horror veterans would come to expect, so I believe that this film is best suited for a younger, tweenage audience looking for a gateway experience into the world of slasher films – at least when it comes to those looking for scares.

On the entertainment front, Happy Death Day is quite a bit of fun. There are some aspects of the movie that may not bother some, but may also be a deal breaker for others, with the main one being the Groundhog Day mechanic itself. When using time travel, or a time loop, writers need to be very careful with how they handle things, as it’s really easy to muck things up, or at least force your audience to be quite forgiving if you’re not handling things properly.

In Happy Death Day, Tree wakes up in a strange dorm room that belongs to a young man named Carter (Israel Broussard.) She’s in bed, wearing no pants, has a splitting headache, and is unsure how she got there. Carter – who very politely points out that he folded her pants for her – explains that she was quite drunk at a party the night before and they go back and forth for a few minutes, and then his roommate busts in, thinking she’s already gone and asking rather loudly if he “tapped that” just as Tree is leaving.

Outside the dorm, Tree is checked out by a random guy, approached by a random girl asking her to sign a petition, walks past a couple sitting on the grass together just as the sprinklers turn on, hears a car alarm go off, and witnesses a guy pass out from exhaustion while attempting to join a frat.

So that’s a quick and rough breakdown of the beginning of every day Tree begins throughout the movie. In the film, Tree is killed at some point during the day, and just as she’s killed, she wakes back up inside Carter’s dorm room, and the above scenario plays out once again. The main issue is that on the third time she wakes up, she’s understandably freaking out because of what’s going on. In this version of the time loop, she gets up, panics, and basically runs out of the room.

Now, this sort of reaction is nice to see because you wouldn’t expect to die twice, and wake up for a third time in the exact same moment you’ve woken up twice before. It’d start to mess with your head, and Tree shows that this is what’s happening. The problem is that in the original scene, she and Carter talk for a few minutes; however, here, she bursts right out of the room. But even though she does that, his roommate is still right outside the door, the random guy is still in the exact position to check her out once she exits the dorm, as is the girl asking her to sign the petition, the couple being hit by the sprinklers, the car alarm going off, and the would-be frat boy passing out…even though all these things shouldn’t happen for another few minutes according to the original timeline, because it’s the same day over and over, right?

So some may get incredibly frustrated that even that simple rule isn’t really followed, as it is kind of the foundation of the movie itself. Usually it would annoy me, but I allowed myself to look past it. It definitely takes you out of the flow when it’s noticed, but it’s either let it go or prepare to just be angry at the entire movie, as that opening sequence never changes, regardless of how quickly Tree exits Carter’s dorm room.

So that glaring time loop issue aside, Happy Death Day does have quite a bit of fun to offer. Tree starts out as an incredibly annoying sorority sister, with the pretentious attitude and style, but luckily her character does have some layers that peel away as the film progresses. So while you may be happy to see her die the first couple of times, she actually becomes the main reason to keep watching – which is the proper way to handle this type of character in this scenario.

As mentioned above, Happy Death Day doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s meant to be a fun coming of age, horror, comedy, mystery hybrid, and it’s successful in that for the most part. While Tree dies over and over and over again, the film actually isn’t overly violent, as Tree wakes up just as she’s about to be fatally stabbed by the knife (or bong.) There are lots of silly, over the top moments that are meant to be funny, or kills that are so ridiculous that they’re just illogical, but if you’re okay with everything mentioned so far, then odds are you’re along for the crazy ride that director Christopher Landon, and writer Scott Lobdell want to take you on.

It also helps that Rothe really takes the role seriously. Now, that may sound odd given that I’ve already said that film doesn’t take itself seriously, but what I mean is that Rothe fully embraces the craziness that is Happy Death Day and because of that, she helps elevate the film to a new level. With a lesser leading performance, I’d imagine the issues that I was able to put aside would become much worse, and instead of being a quick-paced enjoyable tale, the movie would quickly become so cheesy and/or cringe worthy that it’d be unwatchable – no matter how nicely shot the film is.

Luckily that’s not the case, as Rothe carries the movie on her shoulders and in doing so, brings out the best in those around her as well. Well, everyone except the actor who plays her dad in one scene, who is just abysmal. It’s one of the most emotional performances by Rothe in the film, and this guy gives her nothing to work with at all. He’s supposed to be her father, and she’s opening up to him, and he comes off like he’s thinking about what to have for dinner later in the day instead of being in the moment. He’s just so bad. So even more props to Rothe for being able to fire up the waterworks in believable fashion when her co-star in the scene came off like someone who accidentally wandered on set, had no clue what was happening and decided to play the scene as though his character was a mannequin.

Overall, while it has some issues, Happy Death Day is an entertaining, good kind of silly, not really scary, but overall fun teen slasher flick with a solid enough mystery woven throughout that should keep viewers intrigued until the end.

The Blu-ray transfer of the film looks really, really good. The film is fairly balanced when it comes to its day and night sequences, and both look great here, with no muddied out blacks, or washed out colours. Everything looks vibrant and crisp, which really helps in films of this genre. The audio mix is also well done, with clear dialogue throughout…though the choice of piano music used over and over again is somewhat over-the-top, even for this movie, which can ruin the tension. But that doesn’t really have to do with the mix itself.

Special Features:

Alternate Ending – I put this first, because if you read about any of the special features, this is the most important one. This is a fully filmed alternate ending, so it’s likely that both were screened for test audiences, and luckily they dropped this one. While it fits with the craziness that is the entire movie, it’s a little…too…it’s just bad. Had this been the ending, I’m not sure how I would’ve felt. I likely would’ve knocked off a .5 on the score, as endings are important. This is only a two-minute scene, and it really changes how you would’ve felt once the movie finished. I know I’m likely only piquing your curiosity more, and that’s all good. They didn’t go with this ending, so it’s fine to check it out here and see what could have been, and why it’s so much better that it wasn’t.

Deleted Scenes – I don’t really watch deleted scenes, but there are three here that hit a total of almost ten minutes in length altogether.

Worst Birthday Ever – This three minute featurette sees the writer, director and crew talk about the plot, filming, storytelling and all those aspects. It’s short and sweet, so if you like the movie, it’s fairly harmless to get through all these rather quickly to learn a bit more about the process.

Behind the Mask: The Suspects – This three minute featurette talks about the various suspects in the film, the mystery aspect to the story, and the killer’s creepy baby mask.

The Many Deaths of Tree – This is a 90-second death of Tree highlight reel, for those interested.

Universal Pictures Presents Happy Death Day. Directed by: Christopher Landon. Written by: Scott Lobdell. Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Rachel Matthews. Running time: 96 Minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on Blu-ray: Jan. 16, 2018.

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