Published on October 13th, 2017 | by Dan Nicholls0
Happy Death Day
Groundhog Day meets Scream in Happy Death Day, a horror movie from the director of Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Eh, it’s okay, I guess.
It’s Groundhog Day meets Scream for one unlucky young woman in Happy Death Day, a new horror movie from Blumhouse productions. The high concept premise is pretty decent, but the film itself doesn’t quite live up to the cleverness of its central storytelling device. It’s a teen-friendly ‘scary movie’ set on a university campus to which coeds flock and outrageousness peaks at a PG-13 level. Our heroine starts out as little more than a Dollar Store Blake Lively, but part of the joy of Happy Death Day derives exclusively from her increasingly committed performance. A few bright spots raise the proceedings above its genre trappings but the movie falls back into those old, uninspired ways before long.
It’s Tree Gelbman’s (Jessica Rothe) birthday and we’re with her as she wakes up hungover in a strange dorm room. From that immediate point onwards the audience is given more than enough reasonable excuses to dislike this character. She’s horrible to everyone for no apparent reason and when she abruptly meets her demise, you sort of want to cheer. But after the blood is shed Tree suddenly wakes up at the start of the day, doomed to repeat it over and over again until she can find a way to stop her murderer.
One side effect of being a horrible person is that practically everyone wants to kill you, which gives Tree plenty of possibilities to rule out. Tree’s doesn’t know where to start – is it the wife of her married lover? Her timid roommate (Ruby Modine)? The leader of her sorority (Rachel Matthews)? After a few death days she quickly deducts it isn’t the young man she wakes up with on a loop, Carter (Israel Broussard), so she enlists him for a day as a resource to generate ideas on how to break the cycle. But there are more enemies than friends swimming in Tree’s pool and safe people/spaces are scarce.
The film toys with a super interesting twist – that the damage inflicted each day leaves scars and tissue damage. So the more she dies, the harder it is to recover. That’s sort of a cool conceit (usually, like in Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, only memories carry forward through the days) but it’s an idea that’s dropped almost as soon as it’s in the air. It’s like the filmmakers decided it would just be easier to sort of move on and forget about the new rule they introduced. Shame, too, because Happy Death Day is only successful when it zigs instead of zags.
That reliance on familiarity and beaten-to-death tropes is ultimately the film’s undoing. When they lean into the absurdity of the premise there are moments when the movie is exceedingly fun and interesting. But self-seriousness can sink almost any project and there aren’t enough life jackets to keep this thing afloat until the end. A cheeky montage set to ‘Confident’ by Demi Lovato follows Tree as she crosses names off her suspect list. This montage is – no joke – the best part of the whole movie. If the rest of Happy Death Day embraced the same spirit the film could’ve at least gone down as a unique and noble stab at a tried-and-true genre. Instead it just gets partial marks for dipping its toes in without taking the plunge.
Die-hard horror fans generally give anything a shot, so there is already a built-in audience for Happy Death Day. The more discerning viewers, however, aren’t given a solid enough final picture to compellingly pull people into theaters. The production values aren’t anything you couldn’t see on Netflix or some run-of-the-mill VOD cheap release. The dialogue is never quite as clever as it tries to be. The film’s biggest asset, outside of its occasional willingness to go all-out with the premise, is the star turn by Jessica Rothe; the actress doesn’t break out in an Earth-shattering way here but she totally commits to the part. As the film goes on, we like her more and more. She might have begun as a Poor Man’s Blake Lively but she makes a case for her own damn self by the end of it all.
Director Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) certainly keeps things moving at a brisk enough pace within its 96-minute runtime. The film doesn’t look horrible, and it’s not exactly incompetent. It’s just not exactly inspired, either. So what we get is a clever idea with some genuinely effective moments trapped inside another tired genre exercise. Only half the candles are lit on this cake, and you don’t need to rush to blow them out.