Film Review – Happy Death Day
Happy Death Day
I’d like to think that audiences have gotten much more aware of common movie tropes. This is especially true when it comes to horror flicks. When you’ve seen countless slashers about masked killers picking off unsuspecting people one by one, the cycle gets pretty stale. We’re so accustomed to it that we start guessing which of the potential victims will go first, what dumb mistakes they’ll make, and which one will eventually be the lucky person to take the villain down. We become less interested in actually being scared then we are at being entertained. There’s that strange phenomenon in which a horror film is so goofy that it almost plays better as a dark comedy. Happy Death Day (2017) is a prime example.
If you’re looking for something to get you scared, then you’ve come to the wrong place. In fact, when it comes to terror, Happy Death Day is fairly tame. Its appeal lies in how it fully embraces the cheesiness of its main premise. Director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell sets a stage in which a college student named Tree (Jessica Rothe) relives her birthday over and over again. The catch is that her day resets just after she is killed by an unknown assailant. From waking up in the dorm room of a person she doesn’t know, to dealing with her professors and sorority sisters, and then finally biting the dust, Tree has to navigate her day to discover who it was that aimed to have her killed.
Before you say that this sounds a lot like Groundhog Day (1993) – in which a character relives the same day repeatedly – Landon and Lobdell have the self-awareness to recognize this. In fact, as Tree explains her situation to nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard), the dialogue points this out. Using this familiar structure poses an interesting problem when used in the horror genre. If our protagonist has the opportunity to redo the same day after being killed, where does that leave the suspense? Tree gets killed many times as the story plays out, but then reawakens safe and sound. It’s as though she’s playing a video game and hits the “reset” button every time she makes a mistake. The narrative tries to work around this issue by explaining that with each death she becomes “weaker,” but that rule is never fully realized and doesn’t have any legitimate significance to the stakes.
As a thriller, Landon and Lobdell execute sequences with a standard flair. Most of the kill scenes have a generic quality to them, where Tree finds herself alone on campus, is pursued by our killer, and in most cases the murder takes place off screen. The construction of the murder sequences are so poorly executed that they don’t even make much sense. An early scene has Tree walking alone through a dark walkway, only to discover a music box sitting on the pavement playing just as walks up to it. How is this possible? How did the killer know that Tree would just happen to walk down this path at this very moment? Did the killer wind up the music box, place it on the ground, and then jump into the bushes so they could magically appear for the perfect jump scare? I’m more interested in how the killer set this hokey scene up then the actual kill. It’s horror logic gone awry.
But what makes Happy Death Day rise above these flaws are the instances of pure silliness. Fortunately, the tone tells us that we are not to take any of this too seriously, and there’s plentiful evidence to support that point. When Tree sneaks off into the bedroom of a boy anticipating a sexual fling but finds that all he wants to do is pump up music and dance in a hilariously dorky way, Tree’s facial expression had me laughing out loud. And the final twist – where we learn who the killer is and what their motivation was – is so unbelievably moronic and petty that it came off as kind of clever.
The only time the material came back to Earth was when the story treated Tree’s character arc seriously. A side story involving Tree’s relationship with her parents was overly melodramatic and unnecessary. Tree’s budding romance with nice guy Carter was all too predictable. The writing really pushes Carter’s limits – this is a person who fully accepts whatever Tree says, even though he just met her. If anything, there was an opportunity to go fully over the top with the material, to really take things from left field and throw us for a loop. If you’re aiming to be an all out B-movie, then be an all out B-movie to the fullest extent. Sadly, the narrative never gets to that point, instead holding back just as things were getting good.
Many actors and actresses get their major break through horror, and I suspect that this might be the case for Jessica Rothe. She commits to her role, whether it calls for her to be a hapless murder victim, a sleuth, cruel or compassionate, vulnerable or strong, Rothe takes each requirement and runs with it. She’s believable with every choice she makes. She even goes so far as to take a stupid fart joke and own it, which actually makes the joke pay off. While I’m not sure Happy Death Day will have the staying power to be a cult film, I do think Rothe has the staying power for bigger and better things.