Happy Death Day

Capsule Reviews: Happy Death Day; Moon; The Childhood of a Leader

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day doesn’t look particularly promising on paper; it’s basically Groundhog Day for the Blumhouse set, and even cops to the influence in the dialog. But it actually works despite its script being a pile of college-dorm-life clichés. Christopher Landon keeps the pace brisk enough to outrun the script’s copious plot holes without exhausting the audience. Meanwhile, Jessica Rothe provides an exuberant and affable performance in the lead role of Tree (not kidding), a sorority queen-bee who finds herself reliving the day of her murder over and over again. I would have liked a bit more edginess and satire and a bit less predictability, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Special props to Phi Vu for delivering the line “So did you tap that fine vagine?” as if it were something someone somewhere would actually say.

Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken. Directed by Christopher Landon. 96 minutes.


Older Films


Sam Rockwell gets an entire movie to himself and the result is Moon, in which he plays an engineer and the lone crewmember of a lunar helium refinery. I felt director Duncan Jones could have done more with the script’s central twist (no spoilers but it’s very similar to a film released around the same time as Moon, that starred Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling as schoolteachers), but he does a great job of communicating the vast, awesome emptiness and solitude of the Moon, and I haven’t seen a better performance from Rockwell than this one. Also, Kevin Spacey gets to play the voice of the base’s controlling AI, a performance delightfully reminiscent of Douglas Rain’s outings as HAL.

Starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Benedict Wong, Matt Berry. Directed by Duncan Jones. 97 minutes, 2009.

The Childhood of a Leader

For his feature début in the director’s chair, American actor Brady Corbet—still probably best known for playing Peter to Michael Pitt’s Paul in the Funny Games remake—takes a Jean-Paul Sartre story and turns it into a two-hour-long temper tantrum…literally. British child actor Tom Sweet (apparently seven years old at the time this film was made) plays Prescott, the son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and his French wife (Bérniéce Bejo) living in France during the waning days of World War I. For the most part, it plays as a typical dark family study about unpleasant parents raising an unpleasant child, until the film’s final fifteen minutes take everything to a bizarre yet logical extreme. Featuring gorgeous cinematography courtesy Lol Crawley and a frightening disjointed score by pop star-turned-avant garde legend Scott Walker, it’s bloated and pretentious, but not easily forgotten.

Starring Tom Sweet, Bérniéce Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson. Directed by Brady Corbet. 115 minutes, 2015.

A scene from LET US PREY.

Let Us Prey

United Kingdom/Ireland. Directed by Brian O’Malley, 2014. Starring Liam Cunningham, Pollyanna McIntosh. 92 minutes.

The Irish character actor Liam Cunningham–best known these days for playing the gruff but sensitive Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones–tackles a very different kind of role in his latest cinematic effort, Let Us Prey. In it, he plays a vagrant who survives what should be a fatal automobile accident, and later shows up at a police station with a habit of playing with matches, a tendency to shed crow feathers, a little bit of dangerous knowledge about each and every other person there, constable and prisoner alike–and a disconcerting desire to cause trouble.

The character, never formally named but dubbed “Six” in the credits after the number of prison cell he ends up occupying, seems tailor-made for Cunningham, who seems to specialize in a dangerous-yet-thoughtful demeanor and a thousand-yard stare that has doubtless seen shit that would turn your hair white. He turns in an outstanding performance, which shouldn’t surprise you. But Let Us Prey really belongs to co-star Pollyanna McIntosh, who made quite the impression a few years back as the title character in Lucky McKee’s The Woman. Here, she plays Rachel Heggie, a police constable with a reputation for insubordination on her first night on a new beat, and whose new sergeant and fellow cops don’t like her much. McIntosh brings a ferocity and tenacity to Rachel–who has a genuinely shitty backstory–that won’t surprise her fans.

Indeed, all of the performances–including Jonathan Watson as a domestic abuser and Niall Greig Fulton as a physician with a novel approach to the Hippocratic oath–are excellent. That’s a very good thing, because this is the sort of horror movie where just about every character is, at best, a selfish, petty little shit and, at worst, undeniably evil–and the filmmakers seem to intend for the audience to gain their entertainment in watching “Six” (an obvious supernatural agent with a tendency to speak in terms vaguely reminiscent of the Old Testament) manipulate them into getting theirs. Not that I expect every character to be relatable or sympathetic, but here the most likable character, apart from Six and Rachel, is a juvenile delinquent who can’t bring himself to confess to having run over a schoolmate earlier in the evening…and it gets a bit alienating. Plus, it stretches the story a bit: while the script implies Six somehow called these various sinners to the police station for his own purposes, that’s still a lot of nastiness for one burg, and the audience might find itself agreeing with the exasperated Rachel when she screams, “What the fuck is with this town?”

The film establishes its almost operatic grand guignol tone right at the start, with a bombastic title sequence that seems like it would be more comfortable as a prog-metal video. I can’t begrudge director Brian O’Malley and screenwriters David Cairns and Fiona Watson their collective desire to take things over the top; this is, after all, a film where death comes in the form of battering rams and shoeshine machines. But the direction would have benefitted from O’Malley cranking his stylization back a couple of notches; several of the flashbacks lack any sort of coherence.

Composer Steve Lynch has gained some accolades for his retro synth-based score, and I liked what little I could make out, but at many times the sound designer buries it under a constant cacophony of foley. Even the most innocuous of noises–the advancing minutes of a clock, the flick of a light switch–is delivered with the volume of a gunshot, and it’s the rare important event that isn’t accompanied by the sudden screech of noisy instruments.

Let It Prey will doubtless please those who like their horror big, noisy, and intense. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it a lot of work for me to look beyond the surface of the stylistic choices and while I did enjoy the performances, it didn’t seem there was much of substance there. As always, your mileage may vary.

LET US PREY poster