Usually, fewer genres of films get me uninterested faster than slasher films. I do not understand their popularity, and my problems have been documented in my reviews of the Scream franchise. I do get the excitement of facing life-or-death situations. Actions movies are replete with scenarios that viewers imagine themselves in, wondering how they would handle it. When it comes to their slasher cousins, you could make a similar comparison. What loses me, though, is the blood and gore. Why anyone would want to see that stuff is beyond me. Who really enjoys watching somebody be brutally murdered, whether or not you believe that person deserves it? That is typically what these films go for, too, making most of the characters who die at the hands of the killer having some kind of character flaw that helps ease the shock of the body count. As a practicing Catholic against corporal punishment, I do not want to see anyone suffer such a fate, fictitious or real. And then there is Happy Death Day (2017). The title hits much of the content on the bleeding nose, but there is some actual substance here that took this reviewer by surprise.
When Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) awakens in a strange dorm room at the start of Happy Death Day, it is with no memory of how she ended up in this place. Nearby is one of the well-meaning tenants of the Bayfield University dormitory, Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). When she finds that she is wearing his clothes and panics, he assures her that they did not have sex. He also does the gentlemanly act of turning around in the cramped quarters while she changes, and gives her aspirin for her raging hangover before seeing off her disheveled form. Have you ever heard of a term “the walk of shame?” This is what Tree must now perform as she walks across campus back to her sorority, facing stares, dodging environmental petitioners, and brushing off the stalker-ish Tim Bauer (Caleb Spillyards) with which she had one lousy date. She is unsuccessful at sneaking back into her sorority house, caught by her sister and leader Danielle Bouseman (Rachel Mathews). She also has an exchange with her roommate Lori Spengler (Ruby Modine), who has found out Tree’s birthday is today and has prepared a celebratory cupcake complete with candle. Realizing she is late for class, Judy unceremoniously throws out the treat saying that they do not eat carbs, and heads out. After her class with Dr. Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken), she heads to his office to continue their illicit affair, the illicitness coming from the fact that he is a married man. Before they can get too far, Stephanie (Laura Clifton), his wife, interrupts and Tree makes a hasty exit. Later that night, Tree is on her way across campus to yet another party when she comes across a music box playing the “Happy Birthday” song in a lonely tunnel. As she approaches it, a figure appears at one end wearing a baby mask (the school’s mascot strangely seems to be a baby), who stares at her. She warns this person off, but eventually takes off running. Unfortunately, she is caught and stabbed to death . . . only to wake up in the same bed as that morning, in Carter’s dorm room. Confused, she goes about her day with a nagging sense of déjà vu. This time, though, she avoids the tunnel and makes it to the party, which turns out to be a surprise birthday bash for her. As she is about to hook up with a guy at the party, she is attacked by the same mysterious person and killed. You guessed it, she awakens once more in Carter’s bed. Now believing something strange is going on, she decides to stay in that night, locking the doors and boarding the windows. Unfortunately, the killer is already inside the room, and she is murdered once more. Now panicking, she decides to divulge what is going on to Carter, who remarkably buys her story, particularly when she is able to pick out where things are in his room that she should not know. He then suggests that she use her seeming immortality to figure out who is behind the attacks, believing this to be what is needed to break the time loop in which she finds herself. What then follows is her making a list of suspects, investigating them each one at a time, crossing them off, and then dying once more at the hands of the masked man. It would also appear that the repeated brutal mortal injuries she sustains take a toll, and after awaking once more in Carter’s room, she faints and is taken to the hospital. Once there, she is told that x-rays have revealed a great deal of trauma to her body. To her, it suggests that time is running out, and that eventually her death will be permanent. And, of course, the killer is there, this time chasing her down in a car. When she awakens once more, she explains everything once more to Carter, who agrees to help when she predicts everything happening in the quad outside. While they discuss things, she sees a newscast for a serial killer named John Tombs (Rob Mello) being held in the hospital, and thinks this is the person behind the attacks. She then decides to try to warn the police at the hospital about Tombs, but he frees himself before she can get across her message. Unfortunately, Carter dies saving her, and instead of letting him be dead permanently, she lets herself be killed to save him. Nonetheless, she now has a plan. Next, she goes back to the hospital and is able to turn the tables on Tombs. She then goes back to her dorm room and celebrates with Carter by eating Lori’s cupcake. To her horror, she comes to all over again in Carter’s bed, and nothing had changed. Truly scared, she rushes back to her room intent on fleeing, only to be held up by Lori offering her the cupcake. It is then that Tree realizes that Lori had poisoned the baked goodie, and that she had not eaten it until the previous night. Lori had been fed up with Tree’s behavior, and decided to get revenge. After a brief tussle, Tree kicks Lori out of the second story window where the roommate falls to her death. She then reunites once more with Carter, and she is able to make it to the next day, though not without some good-natured teasing by him.
My apologies for the long description of Happy Death Day. A plot like this needs a bit of explanation. For all its length, it does not paint the rosiest picture of Tree. It is also hard to find a Catholic angle to a slasher film. Luckily, this one makes it easy. What Tree undergoes during her time loop is a serious examination of her soul, and she does not like what she finds. Her treatment of her roommate, though what gets her into this predicament, is only the most recent manifestation of her problems. As is revealed at one point, it all starts with the death of her mother (Missy Yager), with whom she was close. Significantly, they shared a birthday, and it is hinted that this is the reason for her odd condition. Yet, if you noticed the past tense, you will have guessed that mom died, and it causes Tree to begin acting out. She stopped talking to her father (Jason Bayle), began partying and sleeping around, and treated like dirt people she determined to be socially awkward. She admits these things to Carter, and with his support and when she believes she has the mystery solved, she begins to make amends with all the people she has wronged. In doing so, she performs a series of truly selfless acts that this Catholic can get behind, not to mention sacrificing herself at one point so that Carter could live. Being a good person is not the sole purview of Christianity. Still, the Faith does teach us to love one another. Tree could not do this because she did not love herself, and she needed to go through some harrowing experiences to learn this lesson. Many Christian thinkers have talked about how everything that happens to us is an opportunity for grace, good or bad. By the end, Tree has truly learned this secret.
Hence, call this a first with Happy Death Day in that I, Albert W. Vogt III, Ph.D., am recommending a slasher film. We will see what happens when I watch the sequel later tonight. In the meantime, be warned that there is a fair amount of inappropriate material in the film. The language is awful, and Danielle really is the worst. Despite Tree starting off in the same mold, she morphs into a sympathetic character by the end. That is all for which this reviewer can ask.