Review: Happy Death Day

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Director: Christopher Landon

Writer: Scott Lobdell

Composer: Bear McCreary

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken

Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Rating: PG-13

As soon as I saw the trailer, I knew I had to see this film… mainly because I’ve had a similar premise for a screenplay percolating in my head for the past two years and I wanted to make sure Scott Lobdell hadn’t beat me to it! (Don’t you just hate when that happens?)

Thankfully he didn’t, as Happy Death Day is heavily based off another popular property – Groundhog Day. The concept of a person reliving the same day over and over again and being the only one conscious of the event has been done several times now. The X-Files and Supernatural have played with the idea, while Edge of Tomorrow successfully explored the concept within the action genre. There was even a film earlier this year, Before I Fall, which took a more serious approach. Does this gimmicky method of storytelling have anything left to explore? Will the horror genre be a good mix?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: It’s a horror where the entire premise revolves around a woman getting murdered at the end of every day. She is killed in various ways (along with a few bystanders as well) and methods of death include stabbings, blunt force trauma, getting hit by vehicles, burning, hanging, and spinal injuries. There are numerous scenes involving hand-to-hand combat, along with a few gunfights. Blood is seen dripping down daggers, splattering across walls, and sometimes from stab wounds. Considering the genre, this slasher film is very light on gore. It is not gratuitous and for the most part, the camera cuts away from the actual deaths. The killer wears a disfigured baby mask, which might be frightening for some viewers.

Language/Crude Humor: Nearly every swear word is said at least once, including the f-bomb, the s-word, and lesser ones such a ‘p*ssy’ and ‘a**hole’. The bad language is heard roughly at a rate of once every five minutes. The characters are rather blunt towards each other and frequently say mean things. The middle finger is given. One character expresses bad manners, going so far too crudely fart in front of them.

Drug/Alcohol References: The characters frequently talk about binge drinking, hangovers and laugh about drunken behavior. A character takes copious amounts of Tylenol to treat a hangover. People are seen socially drinking alcohol at a house party. One character stumbles around drunk. A bong is seen and is commented upon.

Spiritual Content: Given the supernatural circumstances of the core premise, there are suggestions that there may be a higher purpose. Though this film is rather light-hearted and does not explore this in depth. God or a higher power is not mentioned.

Sexual Content: No sex scenes. A character’s past sexual escapades are described, though only in passing. The main female character always wakes up in a male dorm room, with no recollection of the night before. She wears a long top and underwear, and the audience sees her bra as she swaps her shirt. One character passionately kisses a married man and begins to remove their clothes. There is some discussion about their affair. A woman walks across the college campus completely naked – the camera only shows her bare back and shoulders. One man grabs a tissue, heavily implying that he has been masturbating to gay porn (far away image of a computer screen showing two men kissing).

Other Negative Content: The main character is a rather mean, self-centered person. The motive for murder is also petty.

Positive Content: A character realizes the importance of kindness, and begins to cherish the friendship of those around them.

Review

When the premise of Groundhog Day meets the slasher horror sub-genre, the result is surprisingly fun. This delightful tone is immediately obvious from the first few frames, as the Universal logo repeats itself three times, perfectly setting the mood for the story to come. Happy Death Day is a self-conscious piece of work but thankfully is imbued with enough of a personality to know when to laugh at itself. It knows it’s being gimmicky and playfully pokes at a number of tropes, but also has impeccable timing when it comes to upending audiences’ expectations as well.

A lot of this could not have been achieved without the help of Jessica Rothe, cast as the lead role of Tree (apparently short for Theresa). Yes, Tree is her name. I was horribly confused for a good portion of the film, as I mistakenly thought that ‘Tree’ was some kind of code word in the sorority until the truth of the matter finally dawned on me. Ten minutes later, there was a whisper two rows back in the cinema: “Wait? Is her name really Tree?” Yep, turns out that I wasn’t the only one who was confused! Lesson to all those would-be screenwriters and novelists out there: this is why you should just give your character a normal name.

But I digress…

So, Jessica Rothe! She is what sells this story. Due to the nature of the plot’s mechanics, Tree is essentially both that annoying, vacuous socialite bimbo character that is the first to get killed off in any horror film and is also the ‘final girl’ archetype. It’s hilarious to watch her journey expand; from someone who is typically pictured as expendable in this genre, into a person who is virtuous and enduring.

Yet in order to cover this sort of character arc, it means that Tree starts off as a highly unlikeable person. She’s the stereotypical, arrogant and narcissistic popular girl, reminiscent of a Plastic from Mean Girls. It’s honestly surprising to learn that she has managed to make any friends – her behavior ranges only between being blunt and rude. Though she frequently delivers snarky lines, saying the things that many people think, but dare not verbalize. Jessica Rothe masterfully pulls off this dialogue, and while Tree is unforgivably rude, her witty banter makes her likable regardless.

For a main character, Tree doesn’t have much of a background. Yet every so often the film decides to dig a little deeper. It’s only a short monologue or two, but Jessica Rothe manages to capture those emotions and makes the most of what little time she has. When Rothe starts to tear up, get ready, because you may find yourself in a room full of ninja-cut onions as well. She is fantastic in this role, and a lesser actress may not have found the nuances in what could have easily been a bland, stereotypical character.

As for the Groundhog Day plot structure, sometimes it works to the narrative’s strengths, and other times it doesn’t. It is amusing to see a twist in the usual slasher set up, where instead of guessing which character will fall victim next, we see the same person, completely aware of the situation, unable to escape their own demise. The premise is flexible enough to explore and make fun of all the usual tropes.

Naturally, no one believes that there is a killer on the loose, ironically leaving Tree completely isolated in a college teeming with people, while each repeat of the day allows the story to seek a new aspect. Effectively, instead of having a group of people, where one is the hapless victim, another delves into the investigation, and one tries turning the tables and goes on the hunt, Happy Death Day merges all these different strategies and examines them with the one character. While a lot of what is covered is not new ground for this genre, this is at least a fresh approach.

Using this repetitive format also allows the film to progress at an even pace. In general, for a horror movie to work, there needs to be moments of danger interspersed with quieter scenes as a way for the audience to breathe. Since Tree is only ever murdered at night, when the day restarts, the film has the freedom to comfortably explore the other nuances to the story, with the tension slowly building towards yet another deadly confrontation, like a natural ticking time bomb.

Those are the benefits, though the pitfalls of the oft-used Groundhog Day formula are more noticeable. The biggest problem is that the murderer is killing someone who is essentially invincible. Therefore it’s hard to keep the stakes high. Thankfully the narrative is nicely balanced with comedy and a ‘process of elimination’ investigation, though for a horror film it’s very light on the scares. Some of the best scenes involve the close calls, where we begin to wonder whether Tree will succeed, though it’s still difficult to properly class Happy Death Day as a scary movie.

To counteract the low stakes, screenwriter Scott Lobdell does try to add in a complication, but it’s not enough. The story needs more rules or a better explanation of how everything works, though as we know, this type of time loop drama is hardly ever explained. Edge of Tomorrow is unique in that regard.

It’s also naturally repetitive, and since the audience is familiar with the plot before even sitting in the cinema, we merely wait for the characters to catch on and arrive at the same page. It’s always the same. First day is for establishment. Second day is all about being confused. The third day the character finally develops some sort of plan and starts to experiment, and as always, there’s a ‘perfect run.’ All the movies with this plot have this in common, while Before I Fall cleverly plays with the formula through the five stages of grieving.

Compared to the other films in the sub-genre, Tree’s journey is certainly more traumatic! Mascara dribbling down her face is a normal look for her as she constantly starts her day in a frightened panic. Frantic, she doesn’t process her predicament as logically as some of the heroes in the other films.

With not as many limiting factors compared to other incarnations, Happy Death Day doesn’t narrow the field of possibilities. Phil in Groundhog Day can never leave due to a snowstorm; Zoey in Before I Fall is a high school student and therefore doesn’t have the same amount of freedom as an adult; while Cage in Edge of Tomorrow is helplessly drafted into war no matter what he does. It’s not the same for Tree, and whether it’s intentional or not, viewers will fall into the trap of all horror films where we heavily critique the actions of the victimized character.

Furthering this, once the true killer has been revealed, picking apart the plot in hindsight will ruin the film, as no doubt the audience will think up smarter, more efficient pathways and strategies than what Tree explored. Happy Death Day may also fail subsequent viewings as the identity of the murderer might not make a whole lot of sense. I’m still reflecting and wondering if it does actually work or not.

Yet this is why the film’s fun-loving tone is its saving grace. Happy Death Day’s imperfections are forgivable. It’s not a serious film. It’s not trying to be one. Its aim is to entertain, and it succeeds! There’s a tongue-in-cheek feel to the piece, similar to Scream, while the killer’s motivations are hilariously as shallow as what is seen in Hot Fuzz. Underneath the dark comedy is a message; if you find yourself writing a suspect list that’s longer than your murderer’s blade, then maybe the core issue is you. This doesn’t justify the killer’s actions, rather the film explores what role forgiveness and redemption plays in a hostile world.

If you’re looking for a hard-hitting dramatic horror, then Happy Death Day won’t satisfy. But if you’re in the market for a light thrill, that’s fun and not gory (and not pumped with unnecessary jump scares), that you can sit through and laugh with friends, then this might be a good choice. It doesn’t surprise me that this film is dominating the box office because it’s well suited for the older teen demographic. It does show the raunchier aspects of college life, hinting at drug usage, porn, and promiscuous activities, all of which a Christian can’t condone, though the film does eventually get around to promoting a less destructive lifestyle. Yet if you’re a parent of a teen and they’re currently being rebellious and wanting to dabble in this genre (which seems to be a common phase), and despite your wishes, they’re going to watch a horror flick anyway, then they can see far worse than Happy Death Day. For a slasher, it’s as light as they come.

 

Positives

+ This film has an enjoyable tone. + Jessica Rothe. + The Groundhog Day premise is a fun novelty. + Light on gore; fairly tame for the genre.

Negatives

- May not last a second viewing. - There needed to be more rules established in the universe to explain why certain tactics weren't attempted. - Stakes too low for a story in the horror genre. - Not that scary.

The Bottom Line

Happy Death Day may not deliver a great amount of scares, but it is surprisingly fun to watch. It nails its mix of tone between horror and comedy thanks to the wonderful casting of Jessica Rothe, while the novelty of its Groundhog Day plot structure, although a little too familiar, makes for an entertaining time, despite some flaws.

 

7.6

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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