With a release date of Friday, October 13th, Happy Death Day hit theaters while slasher movies were on the minds of many, many people. It’s certainly a smart marketing strategy to use the combined hype of the Halloween season along with the ingrained nostalgia related to one of the most enduring slasher franchises in movie history, and the marketing seems to have paid off. Happy Death Day had strong numbers in its opening weekend at the box office and has prompted numerous web sites to use it as an example of the glorious return of the slasher film. While I enjoyed Happy Death Day well enough, I think the excitement surrounding it is a bit premature and overblown. Judged solely on its own merits without the hype of the season and the hope for a slasher revival skewing the perception of what the movie actually is, Happy Death Day is a fun yet forgettable experience that works better as a teen comedy than a horror movie.
Happy Death Day stars Jessica Rothe as Tree, a college student who is not known among her classmates to be a very pleasant person. When Tree wakes up in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard) after a night of heavy drinking, she attempts to go about her day while nursing a terrible hangover and an even worse attitude. Tree is rude to pretty much everyone she sees: Carter, random strangers, her sorority sisters, and even (or rather, especially) her own roommate. Today happens to be Tree’s birthday, but even that doesn’t appear to improve her disposition, a disposition which is not new nor unusual for her. With Tree being so horrible to so many people, it’s not much of a surprise when she ends up being murdered by a masked killer before the night is over. What does come as a surprise (at least to Tree) is that after she is attacked, she wakes up once again in Carter’s dorm room. She quickly learns that she is reliving the same day, and after another death or two, she realizes that she’s going to keep reliving this day until she can find out who her killer is and stop them.
If this setup sounds like a slasher version of Groundhog Day to you, then you’d be correct. That’s what this movie is. Groundhog Day is even directly referenced by the characters in Happy Death Day at one point, so it’s clear the filmmakers embraced the concept and the similarities. At a high level, the overall plot structure of Happy Death Day even feels a lot like Groundhog Day. The main character is a horrible person to begin the movie, they slowly realize the power and freedom they have in their situation so they enjoy it, then they start to get tired of it so they push towards a conclusion that changes the way they look at their lives and the lives of those around them.
One big difference between the films is the portrayal of the main character. Bill Murray’s performance in Groundhog Day sets him up as a jerk, but he’s a very funny jerk. That makes him likable enough for the audience to stick with him in the beginning and root for him as the movie progresses. Tree is just an insufferable person at the beginning of Happy Death Day. She’s mean to seemingly nice people, but she’s not mean in a funny way. She’s just mean. Of course, comparing Tree to Bill Murray’s Phil Connors isn’t really fair or even necessary for this review, but comparisons are obviously inevitable, and they highlight the difference in approach the filmmaker’s took with Happy Death Day.
Without any more Groundhog Day comparisons, the character of Tree is simply difficult to like. At least initially. As we live the same day over and over with her, we begin to realize why Tree acts the way she does. Her backstory makes sense and is interesting enough, but getting to the point where we finally feel some semblance of sympathy for her might be a chore for some audiences. It’s an approach to the character that makes her character arc more pronounced, but it’s also an approach that might turn some audiences away.
So, if Tree is such a difficult person to like, then it might be wise for Happy Death Day to focus a large portion of the movie on one of the major draws in many films within the slasher sub-genre: inventive kills. People tend to want to see jerks die in horrible ways in slasher movies, and the gimmick of being able to kill Tree (and everyone else) repeatedly feels like a perfect opportunity for viewer to see the movie’s biggest jerk die in multiple, excruciating ways. Unfortunately, with a PG-13 rating, Happy Death Day does not deliver on the violence normally associated with many slasher classics.
That’s not to say that you need graphic violence to make a good slasher. Some of the best slashers relied on building up tension to terrifying levels while forgoing much of the blood. Gory violence is more implied than seen in movies like Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), so the audience has to fill in the gaps in their own heads. That can be very effective when done well. But while the gimmick of reliving the same day could have helped if the focus of Happy Death Day was on the kills, it completely drains most of the possible tension from the movie. Since we know that Tree is going to wake up with another chance at life no matter what happens to her, it doesn’t mean much if she dies. The filmmakers do attempt to add a limit to the number of Tree’s lives, but it feels like a minor plot point is is never really a source of tension.
With two of the main ways to make a memorable slasher movie absent from Happy Death Day, what we’re left with is a lighthearted whodunnit. As a murder mystery that doesn’t take itself seriously at all, the movie isn’t bad. It can be entertaining watching Tree attempt and fail to figure out who hates her the most. The problem is, there are so many obvious red herrings and unbelievable coincidences that it makes part of the fun of trying to figure out the mystery feel cheap. Many viewers will probably figure things out pretty quickly, but there are so many things thrown in that are only there to deliberately throw people off track that the mystery aspect of the film gets unnecessarily convoluted. While I was watching the movie I felt that a lot of the little things seemed way too contrived, and after the characters explained everything in detail towards the end of the film, I still felt the same way.
Overall, I don’t dislike Happy Death Day, but I don’t think I’ll watch it again any time soon. I stated at the beginning of this review that I think the marketing strategy was a good one, and it was. It got people into the theater, and it was pretty much exactly what I expected. Happy Death Day is a watered down version of a slasher that utilizes a gimmick in an okay, but not great, way. The characters might grow on you as they did for me, but you’ll have to get through the first third of the movie for that to start happening. If you don’t mind turning your brain off and just going along for this silly ride, the movie can be fun. Just don’t expect this to be the start of a slasher revival. As a slasher, it’s a decent teen comedy.
6 – Pretty Good
I would recommend Happy Death Day for fans of inoffensive and non-scary horror movies. I would barely categorize this movie as a horror or slasher film, but it does play around with a lot of slasher stereotypes. It’s one of those films that borders on being self-referential while trying to be “smart,” but not in any kind of groundbreaking way.
RECOMMENDATION FOR FURTHER WATCHING
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
Happy Birthday to Me is also pretty silly, but it delivers on more of the gore and violence associated with slashers. And unlike Happy Death Day, the stakes (as in, the deaths) actually mean something.
Title: Happy Death Day
Director: Christopher Landon
Writer: Scott Lobdell
Featured Cast: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken,
Run Time: 96 minutes