'Happy Death Day'
There’s something inherently clever about slapping slasher paint onto the premise of ‘Groundhog Day’. Making it so that the heroine is the only one killed over and over is kinda fun and allows the filmmakers to toy with the conventions of the genre. At times, ‘Happy Death Day’ even lives up to that promise. Unfortunately, not often.
Jessica Rothe stars as Tree Gelbman, a sorority girl who’s selfish and spiteful and hateful and awful and is desperately in need of some sort of supernatural shenanigans to teach her a lesson about being a good person. Fortunately, that happens when she gets caught in a time loop. It starts with waking up in the bed of a nice guy (Israel Broussard) whom she dismisses due to dorkiness (lesson alert!). Then she walks past a bunch of choreographed extras that the filmmakers can use to show repetition later. We learn that she doesn’t talk to her father and she sleeps with a teacher, but neither character has enough personality to even be worth naming the actors. She also has a jerk of a sorority house leader (Rachel Matthews) to deal with and a kind roommate (Ruby Modine) who makes her a birthday cupcake that she rudely trashes. At the end of the day, she’s murdered by a killer in a baby mask. Who could that killer be? Maybe the serial killer who’s oddly being kept at the campus hospital? Perhaps some sort of supernatural entity? No, that second part would make too much sense, right?
After director Christopher Landon tediously sets up the first repeating day and does a couple of run-throughs to prove the day is indeed repeating and our heroine will die no matter what, he has a bit of fun. Nice Guy suggests that Tree probably needs to uncover the murderer to stop the loop, leading to an admittedly amusing montage of false leads and slapstick deaths. This is the brief flash of light when the movie becomes self-conscious and goofy enough to sustain its ridiculous knockoff premise. Does it last? Obviously not.
Landon wants this movie to be frightening and dramatic enough to contain an Oscar clip monologue for the lead, but the flimsy reality of the movie doesn’t sustain any meaningful drama or emotional connection, especially after the ‘Looney Tunes’ kill montage he plays for laughs. Look, I love when comedy and horror are intertwined, but that requires careful tonal balancing. It either has to be a straight horror with comedy weaved in or a funhouse romp. You can’t do it all. Or if you attempt it, you likely don’t know what type of movie you’re making.
The most frustrating aspect of the movie comes down to spoiler territory. Consider this your warning. It must be discussed to explain what’s wrong with this garbage. The big problem here is that we’re dealing with a clearly heightened and supernatural horror phenomenon, but the resolution to the whole mess comes down to identifying a single human killer with an irritatingly obvious motive. This is just insulting. If you don’t want to explain the reason behind the time loop phenomenon and leave it open-ended, fine. That worked for ‘Groundhog Day’. But at least it made sense why the loop finally ended. Here, it’s just because the movie is over. The killer gets caught, so the time loop is complete. Worse, it’s clear several times throughout that the killer had some sort of super slasher power that allowed deaths to occur. Again, as a dumb slasher movie lover, I’m prepared to accept that – but not in a movie where a human killer with no magic powers or motivations somehow causes a time loop and gains super-duper killer powers in the process. Pick a lane. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ chalked it up to aliens. It was dumb and didn’t have much reason, but at least it was an explanation. The final chunk of ‘Happy Death Day’ just feels like a big fuck-you to the audience, assuming that they’ll take the crap they’re served. Give us a break.
Beyond that, the film is defined by gross college characters and clichés, flashy camerawork without discernable style, dull jump scares, and limited gore to ensure maximum PG-13 commercial appeal. It feels like an average slasher with a twist edited and focus-grouped to death in a desperate attempt to force a franchise out of a dime-store Halloween mask and a premise that’s now been ripped off from ‘Groundhog Day’ three times in as many years. There’s a point where the movie logically ends, then spins off into the desperate nonsense I just spent a paragraph working through my anger towards. I have a feeling that focus groups didn’t like the obvious ‘Groundhog Day’ ending, so an extra twist was tacked on. It’s delivered in smug knowing humor that even name-checks that Bill Murray classic as a Get Out of Jail Free card. We shouldn’t stand for that.
‘Happy Death Day’ is as lazy and generic as slasher movies get, just with self-conscious jokes and a secondhand fantasy premise pretending it’s better than simple sleaze. It’s not, and by pretending they’ve done something clever, the filmmakers have actually made something worse than simple slasher sleaze. They’ve made smug slasher sleaze, something we all got over in the ’90s and don’t need back now. With a little luck, the movie will disappear. But since it’s getting a Halloween release with a massive marketing campaign, that probably won’t happen. Like ‘Ouija’ before it, a garbage can of a movie will make money purely because of a marketable premise. Halloween horror crowds deserve better. There’s always a chance that the folks at Blumhouse will right this ship like ‘Ouija’ and bring in someone talented to make a sequel worthy of the idea. However, given how aggressively the company has shoved this nonsense down our throats as a new genre classic before release, that’s unlikely.
The worst part of ‘Happy Death Day’ is that you can feel everyone involved patting themselves on the back for daring to make a slasher movie this clever. In 1997 with ‘Scream’ and ‘Groundhog Day’ fresh in audiences’ minds, that might have been the case. Now it’s just a bunch of people playing copycat and congratulating themselves for it. They don’t deserve to be rewarded. Go see ‘It’ again this Halloween season or stay home and watch absolutely anything else.