Happy Death Day (2017)

2018 #43
Christopher Landon | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Happy Death Day

How much does pure originality matter? Happy Death Day is a high-concept slasher movie that could be described as Groundhog Day meets Scream via Legally Blonde. Normally those kind of “X meets Y” descriptions give a general sense of tone or some coincidental similarities, but if you could put those three films in a blender, Happy Death Day is almost certainly what would come out. (There’s probably a more apposite sorority comedy than Legally Blonde for the third ingredient, but that’s not my subgenre of expertise.) But while there’s no doubt that Happy Death Day is derivative, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.

The film introduces us to college student Tree (Jessica Rothe), who wakes up hungover in a stranger’s dorm room on what turns out to be her birthday. Later that day, she’s murdered… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Later that day, although she takes steps to avoid it, she’s murdered again… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Yes, she’s in a time loop — one which, she theorises, can only be stopped if she finds and stops her killer.

It’s a clever conceit — yes, borrowed from Groundhog Day, but utilised in a different way. For me, the plot/structural similarity is easy to overlook because, hey, it’s a great idea, why not recycle it with a different kind of story? This variation is enjoyably done, too — not an outright comedy, but with enough wit to make for a fun movie. There’s a very real danger of it being repetitive — repetitiveness is baked into the very concept, obviously — but, like Groundhog Day, it dodges that with amusing variations and intelligent filmmaking. Okay, the logic is sometimes a little askew (for example: no matter how quickly or slowly Tree leaves the dorm room at the start, the same random events happen outside), but that’s storytelling expediency rather than a major problem with the film’s logic, in my opinion.

Screaming groundhog

In the lead role, Jessica Rothe is excellent. She fills what could’ve been a pretty standard slasher movie heroine with different levels of reconcilable personality and a surprising amount of heart. She’s a likeable, root-for-able character to spend the day with over and over (and over) again. And when you know how the movie was filmed (i.e. like almost every other movie: not chronologically, but by location, having to shoot scenes from different time loops side by side), the way her performance is accurately nuanced becomes even more impressive.

In my opening comparison I picked Scream specifically because Happy Death Day has the feel of those late ’90s / early ’00s teen horror movies — the heyday of franchises like Scream, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc. Back then this surely would’ve been a huge hit, but I feel like very few people were talking about it when it came out last October. That said, it achieved a respectable Rotten Tomatoes score (70%), grossed $122.6 million (off a budget of just $4.8 million), and this week they made headlines by announcing the sequel’s title, Happy Death Day 2U, which seemed to go down rather well. So maybe I just missed everyone celebrating it first time round.

I hope it continues to find a wider audience, because I think it’s a lot of fun. It may be built from blocks borrowed from other films, but they’ve been arranged in such a way that I think it still feels fresh, and they’ve been assembled skilfully enough that it’s enjoyable either way.

4 out of 5

Happy Death Day 2U is scheduled for release on Valentine’s Day 2019.

Groundhog Day (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #42

He’s having the day of his life…
over and over again.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 101 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 12 February 1993 (USA)
UK Release: 7th May 1993
First Seen: TV, c.1996

Stars
Bill Murray (Ghostbusters, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou)
Andie MacDowell (sex, lies, and videotape, Four Weddings and a Funeral)
Chris Elliott (Cabin Boy, There’s Something About Mary)
Stephen Tobolowsky (Thelma & Louise, Memento)

Director
Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Analyze This)

Screenwriters
Harold Ramis (Animal House, Ghostbusters)
Danny Rubin (S.F.W.)

Story by
Danny Rubin (Hear No Evil, Stork Day)

The Story
Dispatched to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a TV news team get stuck overnight by a snowstorm. When weatherman Phil Connors wakes up the next morning, he finds it’s Groundhog Day again — he’s stuck in a time loop which no one else is aware of, reliving the despised day over and over again. The only advantage is he might be able to use the special knowledge he gains to woo his producer.

Our Hero
Grumpy TV weatherman Phil Connors definitely doesn’t want to be covering the ridiculous Groundhog Day ceremonies, so it’s a personal hell to relive that particular day over and over, possibly for the rest of time. Equally, it might just wind up making him a better man.

Our Villain
Who knows what caused Phil’s predicament? Maybe it was the groundhog — he’s in the title, after all.

Best Supporting Character
Now, don’t you tell me you don’t remember Ned because he’d sure as heckfire remember you. Ned Ryerson. Needlenose Ned. Ned the Head. From Case Western High. Ned Ryerson, did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show? Bing! Ned Ryerson, got the shingles real bad senior year, almost didn’t graduate? Bing, again. Ned Ryerson, dated Phil’s sister Mary Pat a couple times until Phil told him not to anymore? Ned Ryerson? Bing!

Memorable Quote
“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” — Phil

Memorable Scene
Fed up with his limited immortality, Phil tries to commit suicide. It doesn’t work — so he keeps trying, in new and ingenious ways. I mean, when you put it like that it kinda doesn’t sound funny…

Making of
So, how long is Phil trapped in the time loop? Director Harold Ramis said the original idea was 10,000 years, though he later said it was probably more like 10 years. Various websites have tried to work it out, because of course. Estimates range from just under 9 years to more like 34 years, in order to account for all the time Phil spends learning to play the piano, become an ice sculptor, etc. In the film itself, we see events from just 38 days.

Next time…
The creative team behind the RSC’s successful musical Matilda are working on a stage musical adaptation of Groundhog Day, including songs by Tim Minchin, which will premiere at The Old Vic later this year before opening on Broadway in March 2017.

Awards
1 BAFTA (Original Screenplay)
1 British Comedy Award (Comedy Film)
1 Saturn Award (Actress (Andie McDowell))
5 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Actor (Bill Murray), Director, Writing, Costumes)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“While Murray’s deadpan putdowns and dry dismissals of provincial peccadilloes are the comic highlights, Groundhog Day is no supercilious rip of small-town U.S.A. Under Ramis’ even-handed, smartly tilted direction, Groundhog Day also shows the strong virtues of small-town decencies and the maturing-effect they have on the glib media-slicker.” — Duane Byrge, The Hollywood Reporter

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“What has always come best from Bill Murray is a kind of flat, dead-pan delivery, a manner of looking at bizarre situations and sizing them up […] Groundhog Day is right at home for Murray because it affords him at least two dozen moments like that. It is the perfect playground for his kind of humor. Yet, it is something more than that. Here he begins by playing a man who is smug and self-important and slowly transforms into a man who is happy.” — Jerry, armchaircinema

What the Philosophers Say
“perhaps the ultimate meditation on man’s struggle to give meaning to his life within the abyss of an inconsequential existence, at least as far as ’90s comedies go.” — Colin Newton, Mind Over Movies

Verdict

A Twilight Zone-esque setup gets a comedic twist in the hands of co-writer/director Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray (teaming up in a version of that configuration for the sixth time). While the film is undoubtedly a showcase for Murray’s comedic talents (which is no bad thing), alongside that it develops an endearing vein about what it means to be a good person, touching on some pretty philosophical stuff along the way. It’s also a movie about leading a repetitious life, but it isn’t repetitious itself — surely a feat all of its own.

How many #43s can there be? There can be only one.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

aka Live. Die. Repeat.

2014 #102
Doug Liman | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Edge of TomorrowOf late there seems to have been a glut of sci-fi films with highly generic, near-meaningless titles — Oblivion, Elysium, Source Code, even Gravity, and so on. The latest of these is Edge of Tomorrow, based on the novel All You Need is Kill (you can see why they wanted a change), which the distributor had so little confidence in that even during its theatrical ad campaign they tried to sell it as simply Edge, and for the home ent release have mounted a semi-successful campaign to rebrand it as Live. Die. Repeat. — ironically, the most memorable and appropriate title of the lot.

Tom Cruise’s second sci-fi action film about alien invasion and a form of repetition in as many years (after 2013’s Oblivion, which I watched earlier this year), this one sees him cast as a coward in a multi-national defence force set up to combat an alien menace that has conquered mainland Europe. Following a hard-won victory against the aliens at Verdun, the force are planning a D-Day-style mass attack, and Cruise gets co-opted into fighting on the frontline against his will. During the assault, something happens that causes the day to ‘reboot’, and Cruise finds himself living the same day over and over again.

Or, to put it another way, it’s Groundhog Day with shoot-the-aliens bits.

It’s easy to be cynical about Edge of Tomorrow — it’s a mega-budgeted Tom Cruise actioner that sounds like a semi-rip-off of several other movies and was perceived as a flop (it wasn’t, at all) that no one knew how to sell. In fact, it’s a very entertaining movie — Cowardly Cruisesuitably exciting, surprisingly funny, and actually quite clever. It’s also boldly standalone. OK, so it’s an adaptation, but the book is hardly a Hunger Games-style huge literary hit. Producing the film surely isn’t an attempt to turn a print success into a cinematic one, nor is it trying to launch a new franchise — indeed, it’d have to really jump through hoops to even attempt a sequel. No, this is that quite-rare thing now: an original, one-off, blockbuster.

That key ‘original’ element, the repetition (‘original’ in quotes because, yes, it’s from Groundhog Day), is used to good effect, playing variations on things we know but also keeping others secret so as to afford surprises later on. Then, just when you’re beginning to think, “oh God, here we go again”, it moves the story along — after all, just because a day’s repeating doesn’t mean you have to keep going to the same places during it. This leads to the filmmakers sort of playing a clever game with the viewers: just because we’re seeing something happen for the first time doesn’t mean the characters are. Neat.

Are there logic holes? Undoubtedly — it’s a time travel movie. How fundamental are they? Depending on your level of sensitivity, you’ll be bothered by somewhere between “hardly any” and “none” during the film itself. It’s made as blockbuster entertainment, and it works as such. Hello.Reflect too heavily and some bits may begin to crumble more but, for me, not too severely.

The weakest part, sadly, is the climax. It’s alright in itself, but (as Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes cover so eloquently), it doesn’t feel quite right. (Vague spoilers follow.) Abandoning your movie’s defining high concept in order to up the stakes for the finale is a cop-out. Instead, it needs a new twist on the concept that also ups the stakes. That’s harder to come up with, which is probably why they haven’t bothered, but what we do get reduces a clever and borderline-innovative movie to a rote race-against-time overwhelming-odds shoot-out.

As for the post-climax ending, which some have complained isn’t dark or gritty enough… Were those people watching the same movie as me? “Dark and gritty” has its place, and there’s certainly a few ‘nasty’ bits earlier in the film, but the overall level of action and humour is more mass-market. That’s not a criticism, just an observation — this is not actually a dark-and-gritty movie that demands a dark-and-gritty ending. The final scenes fit tonally with the rest of the film. I liked that.

Edge of... a fieldEdge of Tomorrow isn’t an unqualified success, but more than enough of it works to make for a well-above-average modern blockbuster. Excellent action sequences, plenty of amusing asides, and a couple of solid sci-fi concepts to chew on combine to render it quality entertainment. Bonus points for being a true original in a sea of remakes, sequels and spin-offs.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.