Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Happy Death Day (2017) - Movie Review

There is an entire singularity of irony surrounding today’s movie. When Groundhog Day first came out, it was well-regarded and seen as a welcome reprieve from the norm. In the wake of Edge Of Tomorrow, everyone and their two-bit production house decided to get in on the time loop narrative trend, resulting in not only crushing that sense of reprieve that made all this work in the first place, but at a frequency that will likely make most moviegoers feel like they themselves are reliving the same day over and over again. With how many of these films I’ve already covered, I am seriously sceptical that there is any new ground to cover with this idea. I know that “Hollywood has officially run out of ideas” is so much of a meme as to lose any real meaning in saying it, but as I delved into not that long ago, it is starting to become even more pronounced than before.
So, with the director of the widely-derided Scouts' Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse and prolific producer Jason Blum at the helm, is there going to be anything here that isn’t going to make me repeat myself yet again? Well, this is the year of all things surprising, so I’ll admit to being curious about how this will turn out.

The plot: It’s Tree (Jessica Rothe)’s birthday and, after waking up from a bad hangover, she plans on spending it with her sorority sisters. However, a mysterious masked figure plans to kill her. And succeeds, leading to Tree waking up once again at the start of the day. She is stuck in a time loop connected to her birthday, and if she ever plans on seeing tomorrow, she has to find and stop the killer.

For a cast comprised mainly of actors with no prior acting credits, and most certainly none in a film this high-profile, I’ll admit that I’m genuinely impressed by the performances here. Rothe is fantastic as our lead, hitting both the initial hatefulness and a truly disarming take on self-introspection better than quite a few leads in these kinds of films. Broussard works nicely as the romantic lead, along with the various incarnations of that role through the different timelines. Matthews has no prior acting credits but the way she channels supreme sorority bitch is annoying but as far as the character is supposed to be. It’s abrasive, but it doesn’t end crossing the line into irrevocably unwatchable; again, given the other films in this sub-genre, I’ve seen far worse. Charles Aitken as the lecherous teacher fills his boots nicely, Rob Mello as the resident psycho is very effective and Jason Bayle as the father only gets one scene but he does exceptionally as the linchpin for the film’s most dramatic moment.

Well, I can already see one thing to set this apart from the pack: It’s a slasher movie in the purest sense of the term. Hospital escapee killer wearing a mask, blonde female protagonist, primary use of knives; it’s not just the plot gimmick that is familiar here. Now, the slasher film as it exists today is barely recognizable as the initial product. It’s been used so often, both in the main house and the grind house over the last several decades, that it pretty much needs some form of reinvention to be palatable anymore. Look at Hush for a more recent success story in that regard. Here, between the main conceit and the style in which it is executed, this might sound strange to say but it seems that director Christopher B. Landon’s genre-savviness is showing itself once again.
I say this because, in spite of most of the usual conventions tied into time loop and slasher films on display, this film does quite a bit to mess with audience expectations. And not even preconceived expectations either; it actively presents a story thread, carries it out to its logical conclusion, and then switches it all up to introduce something else. Imagine if Clue had all three of its endings be canon and you have some idea of how this film is structured, especially during the final reel. This is why I haven’t yet used a spoiler tag; because even if you know what is going to happen next, the film has other ideas. Considering how well each initial story thread turns out, the intent of throwing the audience off is more palatable because, no matter what turns up next, it hits the mark more times than not.

This is helped by how the time loop gimmick itself is handled, again going in with the idea that the audience has seen this type of film before. It goes through the usual character arc of the lead learning more about themselves and their surroundings through repetition, along with the increasing levels of knowledge about the main plot with each repeat, but it adds a new spin to the proceedings. Along with the usual memory retention to make the act of watching the same events over and over have some sense of progression, it also involves retention of physical injuries from the other timelines. Since they all end in death, that could raise a couple plot holes, but it also adds some real tension to the proceedings.
Even though it carries that same sense of liberation and making the most out of a given day that most of these films have, the knowledge that damage is still being done means that this could still end rather badly. Rather than just being able to be in the time loop indefinitely, the situation has to be dealt with and quickly. Have to admit, that’s a new one, and it gives a definite shot in the arm to the narrative that makes the proceedings a lot more suspenseful.

And the good stuff doesn’t even stop there; there’s also the main reason why this is all happening. Now, admittedly, barely any of these films end up giving a conclusive reason why the time loop exists and this is no exception. However, that’s just a matter of the plot in itself; the subtext, on the other hand, continues that sense of taking familiar elements and giving a fresh take on them. As it goes through the usual progression of Tree learning to be a nicer person with each repeat, it also emphasises the circumstances of the day: It’s Tree’s birthday and she is intent to distract herself from something. The initial joke of waking up in a stranger’s bedroom being a recurring problem ends up giving way to a simmering hesitance concerning Tree’s parents that leads to… well, like I said before, the dramatic height of the film and it is extremely effective.
It ends up taking the general conceit of living each day to their fullest that is stapled to this concept and pushing it to the point where it shows both the importance of the day being repeated and a need to resolve that importance. Again, avoiding outright spoilers, but when it sinks in what Tree is trying to get away from, and how that very act is making her relive painful moments outside of the time loop, it makes a very solid case for this film to exist alongside all the others.

All in all, this film manages to shed new light on a very familiar concept. Through very capable acting, a sharp script by X-Men writer Scott Lobdell that acknowledges and subverts genre expectations, and an overall approach that hits a lot of marks that other similar films end up missing, it makes for a time loop film that is worth watching for those wanting something new within that framework. Even if some of the plot twists get a bit too convoluted and the genre-savviness results in a few groan-worthy moments like out-and-out namechecking Groundhog Day near the end, it’s still a lot more fun that one would expect from a story this overused.

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