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Movie Review: Happy Death Day

Groundhog Day horror riff sees its shadow.

Review by Brandon Wolfe

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s soul-deadened weatherman Phil Connors is forced to relive the same dreary day over and over until he gets it right and learns to be a good person. During the course of his endless temporal hiccup, he must endure syrupy yokels, an obnoxious former classmate and the constant spurning of the woman he loves. But one thing Phil didn’t have to contend with on this metaphysical gauntlet of self-betterment was a masked psychotic with a knife murdering him ad infinitum. The question that Happy Death Day, the latest product rolling off the Blumhouse horror assembly line, asks is—what if he did?

The Phil Connors surrogate here is the unfortunately named Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a self-centered mean girl blithely sowing chaos around her college campus. Tree spends each night in a drunken, bacchanalian stupor, breaks hearts for sport, engages in an affair with her married professor and is one of the core members of an especially vicious sorority. She wakes up one morning in the bed of nice-guy Carter (Israel Broussard), whose kindness Tree has no truck with. As we watch Tree breeze through her day (her birthday, it bears mentioning), we get a clearer picture of her callousness though her interactions with a would-be suitor, her roommate and the other members of her sorority. Then she’s brutally murdered by an assailant wearing a mask of the school’s mascot, a cherubic baby. The second her heart stops, she wakes up again in Carter’s bed to live out the same day all over again.

That Tree must die to reset the day echoes Edge of Tomorrow more than Groundhog Day (though Phil did experience a comparable suicidal phase). Yet that film, sci-fi action rather than horror, actually had much more gruesome fun massacring Tom Cruise over and over than Happy Death Day—an actual slasher movie, mind you—does in chopping down Tree. Part of this can be blamed on the gore-neutering PG-13 that Happy Death Day has been saddled with, but it’s due in larger part to the fact that the film doesn’t seem terribly committed to its professed genre. Though it contains the requisite jump scares and stabbings, Happy Death Day rarely feels like it particularly wants to be a horror film. It’s too bright and airy, too teen-movie agreeable to hit you where it hurts. Even its mysterious villain, cursed with sub-Ghostface ungainliness and that absurdly unscary mask, has no real bite.

Yet, as someone who never saw a time-loop premise he didn’t enjoy, Happy Death Day isn’t without its pleasures. Watching Tree learn the rhythms of the day to play them to her advantage and gaining some sorely needed depth as a result is quite a bit of fun. Newcomer Rothe is very likable, as is Broussard as her ceaselessly helpful confidante. Ignoring the ineffectual horror portions of Happy Death Day and focusing on it as a teen-driven riff on Groundhog Day (a movie that this one makes the mistake of referencing plainly at one point, and one which Tree has never heard of nor its star, which is perhaps her greatest sin) is the key to getting the most out of the film. As one gathers that the filmmakers similarly gravitated to the elements that were more Bill Murray than Michael Myers, this is fairly easy to do.

So while Happy Death Day goes down smoothly as an affable teen romp, it hard not to lament the horror movie that it wasn’t up to the task of being. A slasher interpretation of Groundhog Day where a Final Girl has unlimited do-overs to best her murderer is a fantastic idea that deserves better than the half-hearted pass it receives here. Hopefully that concept will eventually get to live another day.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


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