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Given horror’s box-office dominance in 2017 (It, Get Out and Split remain three of the year’s biggest hits), Happy Death Day seems only right that the slasher movie receives the resurrection it deserves. But one of the many reasons it once again died after Scream brought it back to life was a reluctance from viewers to feel petrified by the relative simplicity of a man holding a knife. Why get scared over another rubber mask, when there are evil dolls, demons, clowns, poltergeists and zombies instead?
It’s Mean Girls runs across Groundhog Day in this bewildering chaos of a film
The pi delta frat house slasher movie has provided plenty of cheap thrills for decades now and since the advent of horror send-ups like Scream, plenty of laughs too. However, when movie producers try to mix cliché with a true classic they have wholeheartedly hacked off more than they can chew.
The USP of the catchily-titled Happy Death Day movie is that it’s Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day with maybe a spot of the underrated Tom Cruise sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow thrown in.
Britney Spears lookalike Jessica Rothe is Tree Gelbman but let’s refer to her as Groundhog Girl. She’s a classic alpha sorority mean queen who finds herself reliving the same day over and over again, the fact that the day in question is her birthday seems only relevant as a naming and not a framing device.
Every day Groundhog Girl meets her maker at the hands of an assailant in a PG-rated Jason Voorhees mask but what is a cycle of terror for her, is a cycle of tedium for us. The comedy falls short, the schizoid script (from whodunit-to-me to mass murderer thriller) is confusing and every character is a central casting carbon copy.
Unlike the guilty pleasure Final Destination franchise, the recurring death scenes don’t even have the decency to be entertainingly ingenious. In one offing, the deeply despicable Groundhog Girl even croaks it in a direct steal from, wait for it, Groundhog Day.
In an attempt to elevate a familiar structure, eager new comedy horror Happy Death Day movie takes the classic slasher formula and adds a nifty twist. Theresa, known as Tree (Jessica Rothe), is waking up in a bad place: a dorm room, to be exact. She’s not quite sure how she got there, but a hangover and someone called Carter (Israel Broussard) are all the clues she needs. Even worse, it’s her birthday, an occasion she despites, and the ensuing 24 hours bring her social embarrassment, romantic issues, sorority sister drama and, well, ultimately her own death. But then Tree wakes up, stuck in the same day, unable to break the cycle until she finds out who wants her dead.
Happy Death Day movie is Groundhog Day movie mixes with Scream, though lacking the first movie’s novelty and the latter’s postmodern clicks. There’s a slick, brightly lit peppiness that makes it a mostly easy watch, and the heightened performances (sassy bitch, dumb jock, geeky nerd) clue us into the fact that this is targeted at a younger teen audience. It seems aimed at a sleepover crowd, the jolts never truly nailing and, despite the many, many deaths, the gore almost entirely nowhere to be seen.
And here’s where a key problem lies. We’re made aware of the format early on, so Tree’s repetitious deaths have very little impact as we know that soon after she’ll be up again to endure the same. (A late-in-the-day attempt to hint at that each death had a physical price is poorly explained to the audience). It drains much of the scares from each differently staged murder, something Final Destination executed so well, and this would be at least recovered some parts if we were made to feel that Tree’s endings were terribly painful, but in securing a lower rating, the movie is near entirely gore-free. It’s a strange, regressive decision, especially given that it’s the product of Blumhouse, the phenomenally successful production company that’s scored major R-rated successes with Get Out, the Purge franchise and the Paranormal Activity series.
In the slasher film canon, there’s something naive and enjoyable about how it appears to exist in a pre-Scream universe, before we were all made aware of the clichés that rule the subgenre. There’s plenty of walking down dark tunnels, asking “Who’s there?” and general behavior that would have most horror fans eye-rolling. For a while this indicates entertaining in a wacky 80s throwback way, but in the final stretch this simplicity turns into distracting, with a poorly crafted ending featuring one of the most staggeringly idiotic motivations for a killer ever written.
Rothe keeps it mostly enjoyable with a well-pitched comic performance, and until she’s slut-shamed at the near end there’s something fascinating about a female slasher movie lead who’s so sexually unrestrained. There are some interesting, bitchy one-liners but the story seems underworked, with some particularly heinous lines (“Will you please stop staring at me like I just took a dump on your mom’s head?”), some absurd plotting (Tree loathes her birthday and wants no one to discover yet has changed her ringtone to a birthday song tune) and a plentiful of emotional beats that leave absolute no impact.