It’s only right that Happy Death Day, wherein a sorority girl is forced to live the day she is murdered over and over again, takes an entire scene to namecheck Groundhog Day. After all, this film from Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), is a crude combination of that beloved Bill Murray satire, Tina Fey’s hit teen film Mean Girls and any of the various slasher films from 1974 onward, particularly Black Christmas.
A few years back, Doug Liman perfected the reliving the same day on a loop formula with Edge of Tomorrow (also known by the superior and much more descriptive name Live Die Repeat) and Landon doesn’t have a ton more to add that Liman didn’t already improve on. Unremarkable details – the eruption of sprinklers, a blaring car alarm, a hammered and sleep-deprived frat pledge keeling over – play like clockwork as our “heroine” attempts to unravel the mystery of who is killing her, assuming that discovering the identity of her attacker will bring an end to the murdercycle once and for all. The target: upperclassmen Tree (Jessica Rothe) who is, quite frankly, an insufferable bitch of a sorority girl. The kind of self-obsessed plastic who strolls around campus, looking down her nose at her peers, confidently spiteful to just about anyone who gives her the time of day. That includes underclassmen Carter (Israel Broussard), the random but considerate guy whose dorm room she is doomed to continue waking up in; sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews), equally superficial, virulent and horrible to those around her; and nursing student and roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), the unequivocal black sheep in Tree’s chapter, who too is spared no courtesy.
The script from Scott Lodbell can be hard to decipher at times. Is the writing trying to be actively bad in spots? A satirical twist on the teen genre and the stupidity of time loop and slasher movies? Or is it just sincerely not very well written? To be honest, I think it’s a little bit of both. Ironically, the 54-year old Lodbell succeeds in making the teenage slang sting, the bitchiness the sisters lob at each other amongst the funniest and most cutting parts of a film that includes a lot of actual cutting. But when it comes to exposition, Lodbell’s characters turn into cheap mouthpieces for plot convenience; used to define for us exactly what the characters are thinking, describing the choices they make rather than trusting the audience to be smart enough to figure it out for themselves. There are one or two glaring instances of this where my eyes almost rolled out of my head.
With a PG-13 rating, Happy Death Day also misses out on any semblance of gleeful violence. There’s virtually no gore to be found here and very little violence in general, especially for a movie about a girl repeatedly stabbed, shot, beat and bludgeoned to death. Landon is very much pursuing the teenage crowd and their parent-allocated ticket money, the lack of blood, guts and language making this a fairly sanitary exercise in genre, even though the film is filled with malevolent bullies and a psychotic killer wearing an unsettling one-toothed baby mask. Further, what kills Death Day does doll out never feel clever, inventive or pushing the envelope in any capacity. This is not Final Destination or even Saw, two deficient narratives kept afloat by nifty carnage, nor does it have have the frightful shock value of something like The Conjuring or even It. Rarely does the violence even take place on screen. But for the purposes of Happy Death Day, physical assassinations play second fiddle to character assassinations, with Tree’s arc taking presence over her repeated slayings.
As it goes with these kind of movies, Tree transforms from a total See You Next Tuesday into a considerate and pleasant person, her near-death experience (if you can call it that) catalyzing in her the positive change that comes standard with a Tony Robbins workshop. By the good grace of Rothe’s performance, the metamorphosis sells, even if the writing beneath it is shabby and hurried. It’s all a bit too quick and too clean; bratty prima donna to appreciative beau ideal in 30 seconds flat – but Rothe anchors it all aptly, parceling in both the cruel and compassionate angles of the character nicely.
When the film kicks into its final gear, I was both somewhat sold on the experience and disappointed in its presentation. The concept is ripe with potential, the mashing of genres and ideas a spawning pool from which a greater film (one exponentially more clever) could and should have erupted, but the final result feels a bit squandered. Or at least a good throw downstream from my admittedly higher expectations.
When you think of Happy Death Day as more of a coming-of-age teen film than an outright horror movie, the merits are more clear. There are defined emotional arcs, decently charming characters and a good amount of irreverent laughs stuffed into the margins and by the end, you find yourself not only rooting for Tree’s survival but her redemption and happiness. As a horror film though, Happy Death Day often falls tragically short of the mark, almost completely absent of frightening moments, clever kills or even effective jump scares. I can think of one time during its entire runtime that I was jostled in my seat so those hoping to get their October frightfest fix should apply elsewhere.
CONCLUSION: A disappointing realization of a clever concept, ‘Happy Death Day’ has elements to celebrate – a strong lead in Jessica Rothe, a plethora of pithy put downs, decent character arcs – but falls grievously flat as a horror film. There’s almost nothing scary, jump-worthy or clever in this film that works much better as a satirical teen comedy.