Happy Death Day

The list of occasion-based horrors is a long one: Halloween, New Year’s Evil, Mother’s Day, April Fool’s Day. Hell, there’s even a Bloody Wednesday for those of you who celebrate Hump Day.

Now, there’s Happy Death Day to celebrate the passing of another year, hopefully without passing (!).

Being a detective in your own murder mystery is quite a conceit, especially so when it’s you that’s being murdered. Delving into cinema’s past, that’s the narrative of D.O.A., a Rudolph Maté-directed 50s film noir in which the protagonist has limited time to solve his own demise before the poison kicks in, and he kicks it (promise, that’s the end of death-related wordplay. After all, why beat a dead horse? ACK).

In Happy Death Day, Jessica Rothe plays Tree (Theresa) a college co-ed who keeps awaking to the same day, day in, day out a la Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, which the movie lazily references toward its end. Worse than Bill Murray’s plight in that one, however, is that a killer in a laminated mask is stalking her, prompting the horror/ philosophical line of inquiry: if a Tree is felled in a college quad and there’s nobody around to hear it…

She soon enlists the help of pal Carter, the undergrad who keeps having to deal with a rather unpleasant and very hungover blonde waking up in his dorm room.

Together, they must orchestrate a plan to move Tree beyond September 18, the day of her repeated, continued (and very stress-inducing) demise.

Happy Death Day has a great premise, and many a commentator has likened the feel to Scream, for better or for worse. Nothing against Scream, but that movie inspired a bunch of inferior self-referential winking horrors in a trend we thought would never end.

Happy Death Day is a Blumhouse production, and knock a star off or add a star depending on your feelings toward that production company. At best, it produces A- solid, capable, if unspectacular efforts (think Sinister or Get Out). At its worst, there’s dismal drek like Fantasy Island.

HDD is solidly in the former camp. It’s pretty sharp, and Jessica Rothe as Tree carries the day with her timing and charm.

*** (out of 5)

Possessor

While one of the better examinations of fractured identity is actually the uber-meta fantasy, Being John Malkovich, you can now throw sci fi horror hybrid Possessor into the mix too.

Tasya Vos (Andrea Risebrough) is an assassin in the style of Cold War era “brain warfare.” But this goes above and beyond MK-Ultra behavior mods in that Vos gets her consciousness physically (or metaphysically) implanted into that of the trigger man (or woman). She then gets them to do the dirty deed and then to off themselves, setting up open and shut murder-suicide scenes.

As you might imagine, this is quite draining on the psyche so when she gets a debriefing from her sinister boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh, star of David Cronenberg’s highly underrated cyberpunk effort, eXistenz) Vos is asked to identify key memories from her childhood to ensure her consciousness is intact (to the extent that it can be. Psychologist Carl Rogers says the self is dynamic and malleable and formed in childhood, but writer/director Brandon Cronenberg doesn’t give Vos too much of a backstory as to how she hooked up with this futuristic Murder Inc, one of the film’s debits).

Vos first inhabits the mind/body of a kidnaped young woman, Holly Bergman via a form of stereotaxic cannula, a nod to some of the rather gruesome techniques spawned when psycho-surgery first came to prominence in the 50s. And presto, she takes over her mind (like some of the better sci fis, like Cronenberg Sr’s The Fly, the technical “how’s” are not too important). Holly, consciousness hijacked, is instructed to take out a prominent lawyer in a nightclub and does so in absolutely gruesome body horror fashion. Then, Vos gets her marching orders for a much more difficult task: to inhabit the mind (and through that, the body) of young Colin, the future son-in-law of a prominent billionaire, Parse, think Richard Branson, but ickier.

Colin’s gig is data miner/privacy breacher peering into people’s bedrooms, so what you have is an antagonist vs a protagonist occupying the two same sides of the duplicity coin.

Possessor is almost an homage/amalgamation of Cronenberg Sr’s better works: the consciousness splicing of The Fly, the two-self compartmentalization of A History of Violence, the brainwave expropriation of Scanners, and the gross-out tech/body interface of eXistenz. It’s those and then some.

Where Brandon betters his dad is with lush cinematography.

Possessor’s bloody and brutal as hell, but totally gorgeous. He makes Seattle-esque Toronto look like the futuristic city scape of Blade Runner.

Probably as polarizing as Antiviral, Possessor has also caused a critic / audience cleavage. But see it for yourself, through your own eyes, ideally.

**** (out of 5)