In a world where we have Mean Girls, Scream, and Groundhog Day, a movie that combines all three films may seem a bit unnecessary. But whether we like that idea or not, here comes Happy Death Day anyway, creeping into theaters just in time for Halloween.
Teresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) inexplicably begins to relive the day of her murder, which also happens to be her birthday. She continually wakes up in the dorm room of a boy she barely knows, Carter (Israel Broussard), who eventually assists in her discovery of the identity of her murderer. Along the way we meet Tree’s callous sorority sisters and pompous biology professor, all of whom may or may not serve as red herrings.
From the get-go, this film hasn’t been able to escape accusations of being derivative. Ever since the trailer dropped, the internet has been abuzz wondering about this so-called “Groundhog Day slasher,” with some opinions championing the idea as fun and interesting, but others outright dismissing it as unoriginal and uninspired (by the way, in a totally meta move, the film addresses this comparison head-on). But, turns out, Happy Death Day is in fact very cool because it successfully supersedes any initial nay-saying by deriding assumptions of what PG-13 horror has become.
First, be it known that this is a slasher that defies slasher logic. People don’t die because of character tropes, and everyone — including Tree’s hateful friends — are on a level playing field when it comes to kills. It’s not a film where the promiscuous girl gets stabbed in the backseat of an old Buick, or the pothead dude is somehow decapitated by his bong, or the studious chick gets hacked up in the library because she’s just too brainy and oblivious. Although the film brings up the idea that karma might pay a visit to some of the more awful characters (including our heroine), this is not a film where you can “count the sins” leading up to deaths. It’s not exactly a film that you watch rooting for people to die; that’s sort of taken out of the equation because, as each time the day resets, each “kill” is also reset. It’s fruitless to rejoice in the death of any one character because that character will be coming right back again. Refreshingly, the film gets more use of the idea of rooting for people to live. The audience is totally on Tree’s side as she pieces together the mystery of her murder, and cheers her on not only in the progress she makes with the mystery, but also as her character transitions away from being an abhorrent, troubled, selfish girl. All of this actually makes Happy Death Day one of the freshest, most honest slashers I’ve seen in quite some time.
Further, this film is a journey of self-discovery. It’s an exploration of the way women are perceived, and how they perceive each other. Normally I’d be upset over the vapid and vitriolic representation of these co-eds, but their self-absorption here serves a purpose. I have to confess: I was in a sorority in college. I’ve said many times in my life that there are far less murders on Sorority Row than movies have led most of us to believe, but what the movies do often get right is pointing out the hypocrisy of “sisterhood.” Greek life is supposed to be rooted in some grand idea of an unwavering support system, but the forced obligation of “being a sister” to someone you don’t actually like very much can easily lead to cattiness and resentment. As portrayed in this film — whether we like to admit it or not — girls do sometimes fight over boys, and other petty jealousies can be the source of debilitating emotional neuroses. Happy Death Day is successful in addressing these issues and, by its end, showing us how simple and gratifying being a decent person towards other people is. In particular, it’s really nice to see a slasher reward its heroine rather than simply end in nihilistic victimization or torture.
This is the fourth feature film from director Christopher Landon, who has shown a sufficient knack for comedy-infused horror based on his work on 2015’s Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse and 2010’s Burning Palms. While Happy Death Day couldn’t really be classified as a horror-comedy, there are key comedic elements inserted here and there that provide a feeling of believability in a film that otherwise relies heavily on suspension of disbelief. The interactions between Tree and Carter are genuine, and their eventual love story is far from contrived (a welcome relief from normal expectation). All that said, though, this is the first feature that Landon has done that he has not written himself, which, given certain problematic boy/girl relationship elements present in Scouts Guide… at least, may explain why the plot of this film and the motivations of these characters operate so well together.
And although the film isn’t especially scary in the traditional sense, it is effective in showing Tree’s frightening breakdown of self; as she repeats her birth(death)day, her actions and reactions become more and more intense as she is frantically trying to figure out what the hell is happening to her. The execution of which is done effectively with the camera strapped to Jessica Rothe’s person, focusing on her distraught facial expressions as she’s freaking out. And kudos to Landon and editor Gregory Plotkin for setting the pace of the film so that even though the entire plot is based upon repetition, it never feels tiresome.
So despite a lot of genre fans initially scoffing and crying “derivative!” at this film, I encourage everyone to give it a chance. You’ll see that this is a fun little horror flick that goes beyond predictability and shows more depth than other films in its genre. Happy Death Day — unlike other recent PG-13 throwaways like Unfriended, The Gallows, or Friend Request — is solid teen horror with heart, and one that will surely be watched at slumber parties for years to come. But that’s not to say adults can’t enjoy it, too — lively and rousing, the film also offers enough emotional insight to cement its place as one of the more entertaining horror films of the year.