By Luke Parker, Columnist
Applying the “Groundhog Day” format to a horror movie seems so obvious a concept that it’s surprising that “Happy Death Day” is the first to do it. It must have been a smooth pitch for the creators, and an easy decision for the studio; it’s cheap to make and easy to sell. Opening comically with the Universal Pictures logo stopping and restarting just as the company’s name turns the corner of the globe, it seems that the filmmakers are comfortable in the sillier format the audience put money down to see.
Except “Happy Death Day” will never be that jocular again, leaving the rather absurd and totally self-exposing mystery to stand – and fall – on its own.
Hungover college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on the morning of her birthday in the bed of the nerdy-but-chivalrous Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). She’s horrified – if anyone were to discover her drunken mistake, her reputation would be ruined. But she is late to class, and to her extracurricular rendezvous, with the professor (Charles Aitken). She rushes out, breezing past the pretentious roommate at the door who’s wondering if his friend got laid.
The “walk of shame” back to her sorority house consists of several easy-to-remember encounters the filmmakers can effortlessly repeat in their “Groundhog Day” remix: a hipster glares at her creepily over his sunglasses; an environmentalist wants her signature on a petition; the sprinklers turn on; a car alarm goes off; and a frat pledge passes out during initiation. The whole collegiate nine yards.
By the time she gets to her house and we meet the rest of her sisters, the roots of her snobbish personality are exposed. With the exception of Lori (Ruby Modine), Tree’s roommate who makes her a surprise birthday cupcake, the rest of the hive is like their queen: pretty enough at first glance, but willing to fat-shame someone for bringing food to a lunch meeting.
A man named Scott Lobdell wrote this movie, and it is around this point that you recognize that “Happy Death Day” was written by a man. The film has a very indolent and superficial perception of what it’s like to be a young woman at college – drinking all night, sleeping with older men and cat-fighting other young and beautiful girls. That’s it, right? Well, had the production’s approach been directed more towards a parody, these elements may have worked. But it wasn’t, and thus, the world drawn up by Lobdell and director Christopher Landon comes off more as impractical than fictional.
Tree carries on through her birthday with a bloated sense of self-worth and a cocky attitude, ignoring her father’s (Jason Bayle) calls, being just about as rude as she can be, and introducing us to a whole lot of enemies. That last detail becomes important once a baby face-masked individual with a large knife kills her, and she wakes up once again in Carter’s room.
The first two or three cycles of this are entertaining, as Tree tries to figure out what is happening. Is this real or is she just experiencing the worst case of déjà vu known to man? But soon, once it seems that she has an unlimited number of chances to solve her own murder, the repetitive narrative becomes too repetitive. At one point, Landon resorts to a montage… geez.
This is not traditional horror. There are only a few jump scares, and the killings are neither graphic (the film is regrettably rated PG-13) nor terrifying. However, a redeeming factor comes in the form of a twist from the “Groundhog Day” recipe. Unlike Bill Murray’s character, who lives his day hundreds of times with zero consequence, Tree’s days are limited as she feels the effects of her attacks and her body becomes weaker and weaker.
The mystery itself as to who her assailant is drives whatever remaining scraps the film has that are worth driving. All I will say is this: I was right all along.
However, it must be said that Rothe, who is in every single scene of “Happy Death Day,” gives it her all. Though absurdly fictitious and lethargic, her role is unquestionably a physically demanding one, and she does just well enough for us to want to see what happens next. She also does a good job reenacting nearly every emotion on her repeating birthday. With that said, it is just well enough, and that’s much more than can be said for the rest the film.