Happy Death Day isn’t the first movie to borrow the “one day on repeat” gimmick from Groundhog Day. It isn’t even the to come out this year with a similar concept. Before I Fall and Naked are two movies to come out earlier this year that feature someone relieving the same chunk of time over and over and over again. (And yes, Groundhog Day didn’t invent the idea of a time loop as a plot device, but it’s the most well known example, and the first thing you’re going to think about when you watch this movie) What Happy Death Day does, is take the familiar concept, and wrap it around a slasher movie so that instead of the masked killer killing a whole group of teenagers, he’s killing the same one over and over and over again.
Happy Death Day starts with Tree (Jessica Rothe) a college sorority sister, waking up on her birthday in a dorm room she doesn’t recognize, with a guy she doesn’t know and no recollection of what happened the night before. Tree is not a likable person. Throughout the day we see her ignoring her dad’s frequent phone calls, hooking up with her professor, making fun of other girls in the sorority, and being rude to just about everyone she comes in contact with from her roommate, to a guy that she dated and is ignoring now, to random students that she passes on the street. Then that evening, on the way to a frat party, Tree is attacked by a stranger in a baby mask (apparently a baby is the mascot of the college) killing her, and causing her to wake up back in the dorm room to relive her birthday all over again and get killed at the end once again.
Happy Death Day sits pretty comfortably in the horror/comedy genre leaning more toward comedy than you might have expected. A fair amount of the movie spends time with the kind of moments you would see in any time loop movie. Silly moments where Tree proves that she’s lived this day before. Silly moments where she uses her knowledge of the future to her advantage. Silly moments where she does something outrageous because this doesn’t really count and everything will be reset tomorrow. These scenes are played for straight comedy and you only get a handful of “scary” sequences in the entire movie. Because there’s only one killer, and really only one victim a day here, the actual horror moments are only at the end of each day. And a good number of those kills are all done in a montage. While the death scenes are creative, the PG-13 rating keeps them from ever going very far, and the whole sequence reads more silly than slapstick. The comedy bits are light and fun, and more hit the mark than miss, but if you’re looking for a scary October movie, this one doesn’t really fulfill that promise.
The movie tries very hard to play into that feeling of fun. Everything is kept lighthearted. Even when contemplating how many times she’s dead, Tree never really dwells on it for too long. And it feels like the actors are having a good time, and inviting you to join in on the fun. And it almost works, but the movie never takes the time to build up its own structure, which it ultimately its downfall. Tree starts out as a truly awful person (The kind that you would look forward to seeing killed in a slasher movie). It’s clear that, like Groundhog Day, the idea here is that living the same day over and over will force her to take a look at herself and become a better person. But we don’t see that evolution happen. Sure she’s more likable later on in the movie, but it’s not a process, it’s more like a light switch. She gets better but there’s no reason why. The movie also takes a brief detour where it implies that dying over and over again is hurting Tree, and that she has a finite number of lives before she dies for good. But other than that one scene, this constraint is never mentioned again. Nobody even seems concerned enough to bring it up in conversation. It’s an artificial restraint meant to add tension to Tree’s situation, but instead it only offers confusion.
Sometimes a premise is strong enough on it’s own that it can stand a mediocre execution. Groundhog Day as a slasher movie is a great premise and even if the actual movie doesn’t live up to it. There’s enjoyment to be had based on the concept alone, but even then, it’s hard not to be dismayed by the actual end product and it’s hard not to long for the movie that could have been.
Tags: film, happy death day, horror, movie, slasher