You really feel your age when you’re a man in your 30s seeing a PG-13 horror movie in a theater surrounded by teenage girls and even some giggling pre-teens. Even if the movie ends up being enjoyable, which Happy Death Day surprisingly is, you walk away hyper-aware that what you just saw wasn’t really meant for you. The clever Scream-meets-Groundhog-Day horror-comedy hybrid you were expecting from the trailers is really more like a Disney Channel or Freeform Original Movie (right down to over-edited montages set to overproduced girl power pop songs) version of Groundhog Day draped in a slasher movie’s clothing. It’s still fun and will likely launch the career of its central star, Jessica Rothe, but it’s also entirely disposable and destined to be remembered years from now more for its notability as a horror movie Groundhog Day than for its own individual merits.
Directed by Christopher Landon, the writer-turned-director behind most of the Paranormal Activity movies as well as Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, the film applies its repeating day format to the story of a bitchy, but secretly grieving college coed who is murdered by a knife-wielding, masked maniac on her birthday. She is completely self-centered and stuck-up, and on what would ordinarily be her last day on Earth she repeatedly passes up opportunities to meet even a baseline of decency, such as returning the wave of a clearly shy and lonely girl outside her sorority house. So, of course, when she is forced to relive the day until she can discover the identity of her killer she ultimately becomes a better person. In a way, it’s like watching a slasher movie’s first victim gradually turn into its final girl.
The triumph of the film is Jessica Rothe’s ability to make this journey engaging enough to distract us from its extreme inevitability. Even in her more conceited opening scenes, there is something innately likable about her, a hint of an inner-goodness that’s been obstructed by some heavy emotional baggage ala the way Sarah Michelle Gellar played a pre-Vampire Slayer Buffy in that show’s flashback episode showing what she was like before moving to Sunnydale. We quickly learn Rothe’s character (named Tree, for some reason) somewhat recently lost her mother. This doesn’t necessarily forgive her insensitivity to those around her, affair with her married professor or cruel decision to sleep with her best friend’s crush, but it helps us understand it for what it is: the unhealthy coping mechanisms of someone running away from pain. It takes days upon days of literal pain for her to face this.
Not that any of the “literal pain” is scary. That’s because even with all of its slasher sequences Happy Death Day is more Groundhog Day and comedy than it is horror movie. Early straight-faced scares quickly give way to jokes and overinsistent musical cues, the film clearly struggling and sometimes barely even trying to stoke fear when we all knew the poor girl is simply going to end up dying again.
The fun then comes from trying to guess where each new death is going to come from and who the killer might be. Scott Lobdell’s script isn’t as inventive with the kills as it could be. Look to Edge of Tomorrow for a better example of how to do that. However, Lobdell does a good job of offering us plenty of possible suspects (e.g., the creepy stalker, the bossy sorority house leader, the roommate, the nice guy who’s actually a little too nice, the professor’s suspicious wife), but it botches the ending when it finally reveals the killer long after the audience has guessed it. Plus, there are some real logical issues with the ending in general.
Actually, the whole film has some serious internal logical issues. In its effort to at least add something new to the Groundhog Day formula, the story toys with the idea of accrued pain, namely that each time Rothe dies she comes back weaker and with lingering scar tissue. Thus, she can only do this so many times before she dies for good. It’s an inventive new twist on the formula, but it’s rather frustratingly dropped after it has served its purpose. It leaves you realizing that when Happy Death Day is content to simply rip off Groundhog Day, down to the central character not only reliving the same day but also following and memorizing the same exact pattern every day, it’s at its best; when it deviates from the formula it doesn’t seem to know what to do with its new ideas because it doesn’t have anything to model them off of.
However, I can’t take this way from Landon and Lobdell: Scream-Meets-Groundhog-Day is a great idea for a movie. What they made, unfortunately, is not really a great movie, but it is a fun one. And Jessica Rothe is going to be a star.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Perfectly enjoyable gateway horror-comedy that doesn’t do as much with its premise as you’d like but does enough to get by and keep you entertained.
THE TRAILER (btw, the “birthday” song featured so prominently in the trailer isn’t in the movie)