Happy Death Day: Better Than Expected, But Still Underwhelming

“Happy Death Day”, directed by Christopher Landon, shows that the combination of morbidity and humor can save any script.

The worst nightmares are the ones where bad things happen over again and again: whether it’s failing an exam repeatedly, being chased by monsters without being able to escape, or facing the horrors of only having Mondays for the rest of your life. Luckily, you can always wake up. But what if you can’t? What if it turns out that your nightmare is not a mere concoction of the mind, but the actual reality? That is the horrifying premise of Christopher B. Landon’s “Happy Death Day”.

Tree (Jessica Rothe), a college student, wakes up after a night of heavy partying in her hook-up’s bed. She has a severe hangover and despite it being her birthday, Tree’s day goes steadily downhill, finally culminating in her being murdered. Miraculously, she wakes up again to the same morning (and the same hangover) in the same boy’s bed. Tree is caught in a time loop. She’s forced to relive the day of her murder again and again until she can find out who her killer is.

While the plot sounds promising, “Happy Death Day” unfortunately falls into the common slasher horror movie trap of creating boring and predictable characters. Landon put little effort into developing the characters beyond their basic stereotypes. Luckily for him, however, Rothe proves to be a talented actress who can square up to the task of giving dimensionality to an otherwise very shallow sorority girl. Rothe plays Tree with a certain spunk and charisma, which is just enough to make us care whether Tree can escape certain deaths.

The other characters, however, stay as flat as pancakes. They are the figures you see in any college or high school movie. There’s the prudish roommate, the sexy teacher, the bitchy sorority girls, the hot ex-boyfriend, etc. The actors are given very little to work with and even less to develop. Of course, since the movie takes place in the same day, there isn’t much room for character development. Or perhaps the characters are underdeveloped to highlight Tree’s character arc. It simply comes over as lazy writing rather than as a conscious artistic choice.

“Happy Death Day” dips its toes into the big themes of finding out who you are and staying true to yourself in the midst of chaotic social interactions. Yet, these relatively interesting themes are also very underdeveloped. However, this doesn’t matter much, as “Happy Death Day” does not pretend to be a philosophical and cinematic masterpiece. Landon isn’t pretentious and isn’t out to try and win an Academy Award. He’s simply trying to sell you a good time at the movies.

What “Happy Death Day” lacks in depth it makes up for in horror and humor – which works surprisingly well. There is high tension during the build-up to the murders, there are surprising and fun twists, and to keep things visually interesting, there’s a good amount of blood thrown in. However, what ultimately redeems “Happy Death Day” is its humor. The writers were very creative in finding new ways that Tree can be killed off, and similar to Wes Craven’s “Scream”, “Happy Death Day” is very self-conscious of being a slasher flick, which makes it border on being a slasher-parody.

Ultimately, Landon’s “Happy Death Day” is a movie to entertain. Therefore, “Happy Death Day” is a good choice for a fun and scary movie night with friends or a date, but you’re not missing much by skipping this one.

“Happy Death Day” is playing at Regal Fenway Cinemas, AMC Loews, Brattle Theater, Somerville Theater, and a number of other cinemas in Boston.

If you liked “Happy Death Day”, instead of re-watching it again and again, give these movies a try:

  1. “Groundhog Day” (Ramis, 1993) This ultimate time loop-movie is an obvious influence and is even referenced in “Happy Death Day”. The plot follows a weather man, who like Tree, is stuck in a day-long loop and must find out how to escape from it.
  2. “Scream” (Craven, 1996) While there’s no time loop in this slasher film, a teenager nevertheless finds all her friends being killed off one after another. The teenagers are all very genre savvy about slasher movies, which might be the key to survival.
  3. “The Endless” (Benson and Moorhead, 2017) In this film festival darling, two brothers return to visit the alien-worshipping cult they left as children, which admittedly sounds very different from “Happy Death Day”. Yet without giving too much away, they find that leaving is a lot more difficult than it should be.

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