Sprinklers... Car alarm...
Some films take you by surprise in the best possible way. You arrive at the cinema with bottom-rung expectations of something trashy and derivative, and come out with a huge smile at how much you've been entertained. Happy Death Day is that kind of film.
And first, let's deal with the poster. It's reminiscent of '80s slasher movies like Bloody Birthday and The Slumber Party Massacre (who remembers those lurid VHS box covers at their local video rental store?), albeit with a hint more humour. In actual fact Happy Death Day is much less exploitative and much more fun than those esteemed titles, for all its darkness. Because the other main filmic point of reference here is Groundhog Day.
Tree (short for Teresa) is a college student woken up, in a strange bed after a rough night, by ringtones reminding her it's her birthday. She's a sorority member with attitude to match, showering all around her with condescending wit. But come-uppance is on the way in the form of a knife-wielding stranger in a grotesque baby-face mask. Then the Groundhog effect kicks in and Tree finds herself trapped in the last day of her life over and over and over...
This film's best move is to acknowledge openly its debt to the Bill Murray comedy classic. It mirrors the structure knowingly right down to the wake-up music, making this less a rip-off and more a macabre homage. This is combines not only with the teen slasher flick, but also with college satires of the Mean Girls variety. The result is a fresh take on old themes, and a movie that is as much about exhilarating fun as jump-scares. Call it the IT factor.
The other stand-out aspect of the film is fresh face Jessica Rothe as Tree. She cameo-ed as one of Emma Stone's actress gal-pals in La La Land, but gets her own big break here and makes the most of it. If Tree starts out as a bitchy irritant, she quickly develops into something much more layered and likable, not least due to Rothe's performance. Energetic and quirky, tempestuous and vulnerable, she's both a great contemporary scream-queen and a comic blast of fresh air. She's also supplied with strong support from Israel Broussard as the boy in whose dorm she continually wakes up, and from a slew of gleeful college stereotypes (who are also suspects in her own multiple murder).
Side-note - I didn't recognise a single actor in this film, which was refreshing in itself. This was all about the story.
Happy Death Day knows the things it wants to be (murder mystery, college comedy and fright-fest are only three) - and succeeds at them all. It's jumpy, funny, twisty and satirical, as wildly colourful as it is dark and scary. I thought it would be laughable rubbish. Turns out it was a birthday present to die for. More than once.
Quite a few jumps, many more laughs, an adrenaline blast and even a lump in the throat. One massive post-movie grin-in-the-making.
Ed's Verdict: A big delicious slice of frosted red-velvet cake, perfect for birthdays or Halloween.