Happy Death Day continues a recent tradition of taking the “repeat the same day over” story idea that was popularized by Groundhog Day and throwing it into a new genre: a slasher film. We’ve seen it with Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow, Naked, and many others.
I’m not against reusing this premise. In fact, using it for a slasher film is kind of genius. It presents some fun opportunities including a unique approach to discovering the identity of the killer, a variety of over-the-top kills, and even some meta-commentary about the repetitive nature of slasher films.
Unfortunately, Happy Death Day doesn’t succeed on any of those levels.
That doesn’t mean the movie is a wash. Director Christopher Landon should be proud of his work here. The film looks slick and polished, and there are some fun camera moves and sequences that take advantage of the time loop concept. There was never a moment where the film looked cheap, and that deserves recognition.
There should also be some compliments thrown towards screenwriter Scott Lobdell for giving lead character, Tree (Jessica Rothe), some smart character decisions. After realizing she’s caught in a time loop, she immediately shuts herself up in her sorority house room and barricades the entire place. That’s a reasonable and logical decision. It doesn’t work out for her, but it made me appreciate this character a little more.
And as far as the comedy goes, it’s pretty hit-or-miss. But I think audiences will find plenty of moments that work for them.
An Empty Promise
That’s all I can really highlight because the rest of Happy Death Day is either shaky or downright broken. The entire premise of a time loop murder isn’t explored in an interesting fashion. You’d think that a slasher film focused around a single victim would have that victim die in increasingly wacky ways.
Nope. Happy Death Day barely attempts to take advantage of this. The deaths are fairly pedestrian and utterly forgettable. With the exception of a well-staged car explosion, nothing stands out as memorable.
There’s also the issue of the time loop. It is never explained. Now, I know we didn’t need that told to us in an existential comedy like Groundhog Day, but a slasher film with a little less on its mind can’t get away with that. There is a recurring power outage in the film that seems to hint at a reason for the time loop, but it’s revealed to be nothing more than a setup for a limp action beat.
Actually, there are quite a few plot issues with the movie. The movie introduces the idea that Tree’s body is accumulating damage from her numerous deaths. This seems like it’s going to be used for a ticking clock element; Tree can only get killed so many times before her body can’t take it anymore. But, that idea is abandoned almost immediately.
Not to mention that the “figuring out the killer” part of the movie is mostly discarded in a comically-themed musical montage. Actually taking time to build up these potential suspects as fully formed characters could have given the film some substance. Instead, the movie goes for some cheap laughs and it makes things feel so much emptier.
Speaking of the mystery, I’m not going to spoil the killer’s identity, but it’s not a complicated one to figure out. There is a clever twist towards the end but it’s not enough to save the whole endeavor.
Maybe this would all be okay if the lead character, Tree, was likable. But Happy Death Day wants to draw from Groundhog Day — they even call that movie out at the end and it’s an embarrassing moment. So they make Tree a jerk so she can redeem herself. The problem is that her redemption comes out of nowhere and feels completely unearned. It would have been much easier to make her a normal girl with tons of problems and then throw a masked killer and a time loop on top of that.
Is Happy Death Day Good?
It’s not bad but it’s disappointing and surprisingly rote. If not for the tight direction and a few moments of good character choices, this would be a total snore. Truth be told, I’m interested to see what director Christopher Landon does next. And if Scott Lobdell’s script was subject to another rewrite or two, I think some of the film’s problems could easily be fixed.
As it stands, Happy Death Day is a missed opportunity that has brief moments of promise. But, that promise never comes out in full. Maybe the next Groundhog Day-inspired film will do it better.