The slasher genre seemed to have faded into obscurity for a time, but leave it to 2017, one of the greatest if not the greatest years for horror movies ever, to bring one of the most popular genre tropes back from the dead. Enter “Happy Death Day”, a fun little film that has been touted as a melding of “Scream” and “Groundhog Day”. While it doesn’t break a lot of new ground, “Happy Death Day” hits all the right notes for what it’s trying to be. It’s fun, somewhat imaginative, and takes full advantage of its time loop plot device to put together a rather interesting mystery. By all accounts it’s not a horrible film, even if it’s still middle of the road.
“Happy Death Day” stars Jessica Rothe as Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, a self-centered, rude and generally unlikable college student who wakes up on the morning of her birthday and goes about her day. Later that night, on her way to a party, Tree is confronted by an assailant wearing the baby mask of the school’s sports mascot. After being brutally killed Tree reawakens on the same day, reliving every moment over and over again before once again being killed by the same assailant. Realizing what’s happening to her Tree continues to relive the same day trying to deduce the identity of her killer, a plan concocted by Carter David (Israel Broussard) whose room Tree wakes up in each morning. Eventually Tree realizes her many repeats are taking real tolls on her body and works to solve her own murder before she runs out of opportunities to catch the killer.
“Happy Death Day” is pretty much exactly what you’d imagine. It takes the same premise as “Groundhog Day”, a film that is comically referenced in a meta moment of the movie, and applies it to a slasher film which might seem like ground well covered in the past but honestly it’s a relatively rare combination. The story plays out as you’d expect. Tree begins to try and live her life better while also hunting down her killer and being offed in numerous creative ways. Still, as predictable as the plot might seem there’s a lot to enjoy as the mystery of who the killer is and why Tree is the victim begins to unravel with red herrings and subtle twists making themselves apparent as the story progresses and each loop unravels.
Jessica Rothe proves to be a true talent in this flick at the centerpiece of all the action. As Tree, Rothe portrays a woman who starts off as self-centered and unlikable but after experiencing the loops she comes to grips with some of her inner demons and her abrasive personality. While Tree is not the most complex character in the world, Rothe does turn in a pretty decent and memorable performance that solidifies her as a legitimate actress when put center stage. What makes Tree so interesting is that she is a tough woman who also has her vulnerabilities. As we see her open up a bit more to the people around her, coming to peace with a family loss that brought her to shut people out, she becomes more and more aggressive when seeking out her killer and becomes determined to be a better person. What could have easily been another generic female lead in a slasher flick actually becomes a pretty relatable and likable woman in Rothe’s capable hands. She commands the action and demands attention, and in many ways actually overshadows her killer as the most relevant role in this film. All are signs of a great performance.
While there aren’t any other truly major roles in this film other than Israel Broussard’s Carter and the eventual revealed killer the remainder of the cast do quite well to give their characters memorable and unique personalities all their own so while they are righteously overshadowed by Rothe’s Tree every character seems significant, unique, and potentially deadly as suspects making for a pretty decent mystery as the story progresses as to who has it out for Tree and why.
The neat thing about “Happy Death Day” is it doesn’t dwell on the bloodshed. We do see some gruesome kills but for the most part its very tasteful and held back, putting the focus more on the fact that the killings happen and less on the gruesome imagery to leave some things for the imagination. Still this brings up a flaw with the movie and that’s its lack of truly effective scares. While there are a few jump scares and the thought of the damage done to Tree can be pretty frightening, “Happy Death Day” is only scary in the sense that someone is trying to kill our main character. It doesn’t really break new ground in the slasher genre from that sense although it is fun to try and piece together the puzzle to decipher who the true killer might be. It’s fun, but it’s not scary.
While it might not usher in anything new for the slasher genre in general, “Happy Death Day” does make interesting and effective use of the time loop trope and even adds some new elements to that cliché that help make it more interesting as a sci-fi type mystery than a horror film. The concept of residual damage from Tree’s many resets was a pretty cool addition that insinuates Tree only has so many tries to get things right and adds to the tension, even if the significance and impact of these scars seems a bit inconsistent in later loops. That brings me another issue. With the understanding that it’s pretty difficult to recapture the same scene over and over with different results “Happy Death Day” tries its best but there are still some glaring issues with consistency, even if the story as a whole and the twists and surprise revelations do prove to be handled with great care with each repeat.
“Happy Death Day” is pretty much a typical slasher film that breaks new ground more for its time loop concept than the slasher genre. It’s not horrible, but it’s no work of art. It’s fun, keeps your attention, and has a capable leading lady at the helm. By many accounts it’s generic, but that doesn’t make it bad. Even by generic standards “Happy Death Day” holds its own giving us an entertaining ride that keeps us guessing right to the very end. It might not shine as brightly as many other horror movies that have made 2017 such a fun year for scares and frights, but it’s a fun escapism film worth enjoying and will certainly fill anyone’s hunger for a more entertaining and carefree moviegoing horror experience especially with Halloween right around the corner.