Going in I expected Christopher Landon’s “Happy Death Day” to be very silly. It is, after all, a mixture of teen slasher horror and the Harold Ramis comedy “Groundhog Day.” On that front it certainly met my expectations. However, it wasn’t until about ten minutes into “Happy Death Day” that I realized the “Groundhog Day” gimmick (the hero has to relive the same day over and over) is better suited to the horror genre than I originally thought, in a non-silly way.
Before I expand on this point lets get the plot out of the way. College student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on her birthday with a miserable hangover, in the dorm of an awkward college freshman Carter (Israel Broussard). After a cold interaction, she walks back across the university campus to her sorority, where she runs into the snotty Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and her quiet roommate Lori (Ruby Modine). Later that night, as she walks to an on campus party she is violently murdered by a masked maniac wearing a creepy baby facemask (the school’s mascot). She wakes up in Carter’s bed again and…well, you know.
The idea of having to relive the day of your violent murder again and again is legitimately terrifying. It’s like having the same nightmare over and over again with no “wake up” period. When you wake up, you're back in it. And no matter what you try and do, your stuck in this horrifying loop, unable to avoid your grim fate. Hell, just typing out that sentence made me a little anxious. There is potential here for a good, serious horror movie, which we catch brief glimpses of early on in “Happy Death Day,” as when Tree (on her third ‘death day’) decides to skip the party and barricade herself in her room.
Yet, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph, “Happy Death Day” goes the silly route. Landon’s film is a remake of “Groundhog Day;” there are similar plot points and Tree’s character arc mirrors Bill Murray’s. At the same time, it’s a goofier, more self-aware version of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and other horror films of that ilk.
As a young adult, college set “Groundhog Day,” “Death Day” is surprisingly solid, if a little predictable. Rothe gives a snarky, lovable performance and Scott Lobdell’s screenplay actually takes the character seriously--treating Tree’s transformation from cold and self-absorbed to warm and considerate with earnestness and humor. Broussard is good as the nice guy/romantic interest and Matthews is delectable as the snotty ‘mean girl.” The only glaring issue is the treatment of Tree’s troubled relationship with her mom and dad. Were this solely a “Groundhog Day” remake and not also a horror movie, the filmmakers might have been able to better develop the relationship but as it stands now the material is contrived.
As a horror-comedy, “Death Day” isn’t so successful. There’s fun to be had but by and large the humor is more miss than hit. And the film itself eventually goes off the rails, not in a fun way but in a grating, obnoxious one. I winced when Tree started delivering cheesy quips and strained one-liners. Meanwhile, the horror elements are mostly half-baked and uninspiring. While Tree’s initial interactions with the mysterious killer are tense, subsequent meetings are annoyingly disorienting and poorly shot. The inclusion of an escaped murderer late in the second act is a trite Red Haring and the final twist (wherein we discover the true identity of the murderer) is convoluted and underwhelming.
In the end, there are two potentially good movie concepts in “Happy Death Day:” a serious horror film that uses the “Groundhog Day” gimmick as a jumping off point as well as a young adult, female led “Groundhog Day” (with touches of “Mean Girls” and “Clueless” style social satire) remake. Unfortunately, the product being released this weekend is a mildly fun but thoroughly mediocre combination of said concepts.