Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up hungover in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). Glibly, she blows him off and leaves to her sorority house, where she continues to brush off people left and right. If you cannot yet tell, she is not a very nice college student. She doesn’t even care that it is her birthday.
She goes to class (she is engaging in an adulterous relationship with her professor), comes home to prepare for a party, and leaves alone to get there. On the way, she is cornered by a masked knife-wielder and killed. But wait…she wakes up in Carter’s dorm room again!
It’s Groundhog Day as a slasher. Pretty high concept. Got it? Good.
Christopher Landon, writer of the Paranormal Activity sequels and director of Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, returns to Blumhouse to helm this cheeky horror comedy.
While Scouts Guide was largely tepid when it came to mixing the laughs and scares, Happy Death Day takes a step up. If only a single step.
The first act of the film works really well. There is enough setup in the first iteration of the day to establish suspense. Then, in the next two iterations the suspense is augmented with comedic subversion of common horror tropes.
The film continues to have misdirections throughout, but after this first act it is hard to find something that accomplishes the same level of suspense. The film is humorous, and this is what keeps it from feeling tired or dragging. The movie certainly does not overstay its welcome from a pacing standpoint, even as it repeats the same things again and again.
However, there is a distinct scene that demarcates the film. There is the first act. Then there is a montage scene. It is a montage scene that you are probably already expecting if you are going into this film knowing the premise. Then there is the film post-montage, and it is not as good as the film pre-montage.
What really threatens to bog down this film is its incessantly stereotypical characters and its lack of a satisfying resolution. These two things go hand in hand, as well.
It appears purposeful that all of the characters in the film are playing teenage cliches. They are college students, but they really are fitting into teen high school movie cliches. Even though their annoying dialogue is delivered tongue-in-cheek as the butt of the joke, it still gets groan-worthy as the film continues.
Because none of these characters are engaging or individualized in any meaningful way, when the mystery of the film unravels the reveal feels empty. There is an attempt to lead the viewer down red herrings, which is a valiant effort, but this does not execute in a convincing way. The end, thus, is more likely to be received with a shrug of indifference than with a shocked gasp.
What saves the film from a character standpoint are the lead performances from Rothe and Broussard. Their characters hollow, it is their charisma that allows us to follow the characters without rolling our eyes. They aren’t going to blow anyone away with their turns, but they manipulate the script into something that at least can pass as natural.
Happy Death Day, on first sight, is not a terrible horror comedy. It is a fun ride for what it is. But it lacks memorability given its empty characters, poor one-liners coming from these stereotypical characters, and the climax that is ruined by these characters.
These flaws may be a result of the filmmaker being in on the joke, but that doesn’t keep these issues from nagging at you. The film begins by showing that comedy and horror can be combined in a way that does not lessen one to favor the other. Once it moves into the later acts, however, this balance shifts to favor comedy way more than horror. This may not be a terrible thing, but the film doesn’t have enough comedy in its bones to make up for its numerous shortcomings.
Happy Death Day: C+
I think we can all agree that the term “beyotch” is no longer relevant or funny (even ironically) in our screenplays anymore. Right? We can agree? Great! Now someone tell Scott Lobdell that, please. Thank you.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)