“Happy Death Day” tries really hard to be as good as “Groundhog Day” — but it falls devastatingly short. The audience is unconcerned with who the killer is and instead is more perplexed by the genre of the film itself: Is it a horror movie that isn’t scary or a comedy that isn’t funny?
The film begins with Tree (Jessica Rothe) waking up in an unfamiliar dorm room the morning after a one-night stand. Her obnoxious ringtone informs the audience that today is her birthday. Tree is greeted exuberantly by Carter (Israel Broussard), who informs her that she was particularly wasted the night before. Tree leaves shortly after a curt exchange and proceeds to have an extremely mundane day of classes and banal conversations with her sorority sisters. Later that night, while en route to her own surprise party, Tree is brutally murdered by a figure wearing a baby mask. Immediately after, Tree wakes up in the same dorm room and is forced to endure that same day endlessly.
Unfortunately for the audience, they have to relive it as well.
A never-ending day in a very interesting take on the slasher genre. Classic slashers such as “Friday the 13th” also restrict themselves to one night but give themselves the entirety of the evening in order to move toward a satisfying climax. “Happy Death Day,” however, doesn’t do this. One night is chosen, but the film has no time to build suspense, as it’s segmented by repetition. Not only is there a lack of suspense, but the audience already knows when the killer will make an appearance. Therefore, it is a mechanism that simply doesn’t work well, and the result is lackluster scares that quickly cease to leave an impression.
Also conspicuously absent from the movie are stakes for its protagonist. As Carter states, “The way I see it, you have an unlimited amount of lives. Unlimited opportunities to solve your own murder.” How unexciting.
The thrill from slasher films comes from believing that the characters are involved in life-and-death struggles. Therefore, the stakes are significantly lowered when the protagonist has the magical ability to regenerate. After a point, this pattern is challenged somewhat, when Tree begins to feel weaker after each subsequent death. Tree actually contemplates her own mortality, but this doesn’t even remain a consistent fear. Soon after this scene, Tree commits suicide in order to save Carter’s life, which only underscores the lack of overall consequences. It is also problematic because it implies that suicide is somehow a “solution.”
So if “Happy Death Day” fails as a horror movie, does it at least produce some laughs? Sadly, no.
There are no genuine laughs in the film, unless you count how laughably terrible the killer’s mask looks. Along with a burp/fart joke combination and bizarre quips such as, “Stop looking at me like I just shit on your mom’s head,” the film also crosses a line by joking about a very serious topic.
During one of Tree’s fights with her masked assailant, she is pushed onto a bed and held down as the figure crawls on top of her. Just then, a drunken fraternity brother stumbles into the room and witnesses what appears to be rape. Tree screams out for help, and the fraternity brother does nothing but drunkenly yell his approval before traipsing away. It should be noted that this scene is played for laughs, and it is not the only time the film touches upon the theme of sexual assault.
During one of Tree’s talks with Carter, he reveals that they didn’t have sex the night before, and Tree is shocked. Carter explains again how wasted Tree was and earns Tree’s quiet admiration. But is Carter really a good guy because he didn’t take advantage of an unconscious woman? Does he really deserve a medal for being a decent human being? The film’s callous treatment of sexual assault is its most terrifying moment.
The success of “Groundhog Day” largely lies with the undeniable charisma of Billy Murray. Although the same day repeats endlessly, the audience is comforted by the fact that at least Murray will bring something new to the table. An eternity spent with such an amusing character doesn’t seem like too bad of a bargain. Unfortunately, “Happy” forgot to make its protagonist likable and offers an unsuccessful attempt to reimagine this mechanism. In the film’s final scene, Carter comments in an offhanded manner, “Hey, you know what this whole situation kinda reminds me of? ‘Groundhog Day.’ ”
Don’t try and compare yourself to Bill Murray. Billy Murray will always win out over a sorority girl with a terrible ringtone.
Contact Sarah Alford at [email protected].