BREAKING IT DOWN: The HAPPY DEATH DAY Murder Mystery Montage

It's informative! It's entertaining!

By Jon Lee Brody · October 23, 2023, 5:41 PM EDT
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I love a good montage. Whether it's fast-paced Tony Scott-like montages from Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz or Daniel LaRusso's All Valley Karate Tournament montage accompanied by Joe Esposito's epic jam "You're the Best" from The Karate Kid or a movie like Rocky IV, which is essentially a feature film length montage!

Now, a montage, by definition, is simply taking separate elements and compositing them into a continuous whole. But simply stringing elements together a good montage does not make. It can be a great opportunity to push the story along and develop character. It's a fine balance of giving the audience a crash course, while not rushing and also keeping them entertained, which brings us to Happy Death Day. From the moment I heard about the concept of a Groundhog Day murder mystery slasher movie, I was all in. And the movie puts us right in the middle of the action, instantly part of a bigger story, piecing it all together along with our main character Tree (played wonderfully by Jessica Rothe).

While living in a time loop that fans of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Cause and Effect" would undoubtedly approve of, Tree lives through a series of kills as she tries to solve her own murder. We are introduced to other characters along the way, and it almost feels like the whole "Who Shot Mr. Burns" thing on The Simpsons; anyone could be a suspect! Tree is determined to find out who her killer is once and for all.

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Up to this point, here's what we know. Tree is stuck in a time loop (Sidenote: I love that Chris Landon looped the Universal Studios logo in the intro, which immediately establishes what we're getting into). We also have a babyface killer (whom I'm referring to as Porky Pitt). Porky Pitt is the murderer who repeatedly kills Tree, and we're in a place where anyone could be the murderer since Tree has made some enemies.

This then leads to — murder mystery montage! The montage officially begins with Tree playing detective in this whodunnit scenario, and her first stop is to investigate Tim. He's the guy in the beginning who seems to want Tree's attention desperately. But Tree ain't having it.

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There is a great moment of comic relief with Tree peeking in and catching Tim about to, well... we'll leave that to the imagination. We also find out that Tim is gay, which becomes a whole "a-ha" for Tree as everything about their interaction suddenly makes sense. We also discover he is not the killer because Porky Pitt shows up shortly after and stabs her. In just a few seconds, we get vital info and a slasher kill.

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The detail of Tree cutting and dying her hair is a funny bit, and Jessica Rothe really sells this with her facial expressions. But also remember, up to this point, Tree has pretty much remained the same person while doing this whole rinse-and-repeat cycle. Now she's changing her look, and this is really the start of Tree changing overall. It started with a haircut and pink hair dye.

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We get some more info, this time on the wife of the professor Tree is having an affair with. The wife appears to be a possibility until Porky Pitt shows up again. This kill right here is intense and also very important. Intense because of the drowning, but when Tree wakes up at the top of the time loop, she throws up the water. It's easy to gloss over this, but up to this point, we haven't seen anything carry over to the next day. She would wake up with the memory of the latest kill, but it was more like waking up from a nightmare without any visible consequences. But now she's throwing up water after drowning in a past scenario, and we see that all of these deaths carry over to the following days. Which means maybe she's not invincible with unlimited tries. The stakes have just been increased!

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Now we get to Danielle, the sorority leader who's so mean that even Regina George's Burn Book couldn't handle her. What I love about this one is that we get a mini fight scene, and it's nothing too stylized. This is a pretty grounded looking scuffle, and it's pretty reminiscent of the iconic 5 minutes 20-second fight scene in They Live (we'll come back to this). Then, like Regina George, they both get hit by a bus. (See! The Regina George thing wasn't just a throwaway line).

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Tree crosses more names off her list, which leads us to what I call Tree's Liberation. Remember what I said earlier about Tree starting to change? This is part of that process, which involves Tree just letting it all go, and putting it all out there to hopefully start anew. And yes, this is totally hilarious, especially with how committed Jessica is to this bit, but for her character, it's really leaning into just being in the moment and owning it. This scene doesn't exist purely for visual comedy or done for the sake of gratuitous nudity, it legitimately contributes to Tree's growth as a person. It also gives the audience a much-needed laugh amidst all the darkness. I really love how this part of the movie is shot, no detail is too small. Notice how we're getting everyone involved, even the deep background performers. No part of the frame is wasted. I really applaud Chris Landon for getting some extra laughs out of this with little things like the frat guy passing out during hell week, even though a naked girl is in front of him. These little variants and details protect the movie from monotony due to repeating events, which is crucial at this stage because it's still pretty early on.

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That leads us here. We get the classic trope of thinking we've got the killer figured out, but instead, the wrong person gets attacked. Upon this realization, we get a great Hitchcock "look behind you" moment, leading to a great shot with an incredible match cut to take us back to Carter's dorm room.

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This isn't just something that looks impressive, it's important. I pointed out earlier that we're starting to see that the kills are adding up and having a cumulative effect. Despite the days starting over, it's evident now that the repeated kills are impacting Tree's body, and it's starting to catch up with her. We're at a point now where the past kills and the latest day Tree is living out are starting to become the same. The shot symbolizes that Tree is working against a ticking clock and that the stakes have been raised. If she doesn't solve this mystery soon, it'll inevitably come to a point where she won't have any more do-overs. Oh, and look, a They Live poster (see, I told you it'd come back around).

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This montage isn't just an assembly of scenes; it's a mini story within the bigger story, providing the information we need, some satisfying slasher kills, and also contributing to Tree's character growth. We get a little bit of everything to keep us entertained. And this puts us in a prime position to finish out the story. And with that, the only thing left for me to say is, in montage, we trust. And in Chris Landon, we trust.

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