- Fully and shamelessly embraces similarity to Groundhog Day and uses that to its advantage, developing its own tone and personality
- Disappointing in terms of horror – could have been stronger if they’d blended comedy and horror more
- Very funny
- A good twist towards the end
- A very likeable lead whose character believably develops more than you’d expect from a film like this
There comes a point in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray’s Phil tires of his never-ending, repetitive day and starts deliberately trying to kill himself. Happy Death Day, on the other hand, while maintaining the same premise, sees the protagonist not running towards death, but running away from death again and again and again – each time she gets killed resulting in her day restarting. Though initially seeming like an interesting blend of comedy and horror, the horror is much more lite than expected, but the entertaining film is saved by the well-done comedy and the eventually very likeable lead – definitely more than I was expecting (always a good thing for horror movies!)
Waking up in the bed of university student Carter (Israel Broussard), a boy she doesn’t know, Tree (Jessica Rothe) is trying to recover from both a hangover and the embarrassment of ending up there after a wild night out to celebrate her birthday. After taking a painkiller, getting dressed and being unnecessarily rude to Carter, an unlikable Tree walks through a wonderfully detailed university campus (the details of which we all get to know very well, along with Tree), avoiding an activists, exes etc. Back at her sorority house, she blows off a couple of friends, including ignoring her roommate’s birthday cupcake. After that she goes about her day, until she goes out to party at night. This is where things get interesting – on way out she runs into a sinister looking man in a mask or, after toying with her and raising the tension, kills her with a knife. Suddenly she wakes again, once more in Carter’s bed, convinced it was just a nightmare. Going through the same day again, with lots of deja-vu, eventually the man in the mask murders her once more, and yet again she wakes up in Carter’s bed. Soon she cottons on to what’s happening and resolves to start solving the mystery of her murder…
It sounds like much more of a horror/thriller than it really is. It could have been an excellent achievement, perfectly blending the horror/thriller and comedy genres; instead though the focus is much more on comedy than any kind of scares or suspense. Still, this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film. There are plenty of examples of films blending horror and comedy (Scream, the easiest example), but it’s a shame that there wasn’t enough emphasis on horror for it to be included in lists among greats like Scream. Instead the promotion sold it more as a horror film, inevitably disappointing the more avid horror fans. There are enough scary movie cliches and a couple of jump scares peppered throughout to satisfy most, though it’s far from being able to call itself a true horror. Yet maybe you’d get away with labelling its secondary genre as ‘thriller;’ it’s here that this film has an edge on Groundhog Day (I know, sacrilegious comment!). Happy Death Day matches Groundhog Day with comedy, but surpasses it by including a more unique whodunit plot. It’s hugely enjoyable watching Tree go through her suspects and theories, ticking off her list as well as your own. Plus the twist at the end (one you absolutely do not see coming) makes it all worth it too.
This isn’t to say though that Happy Death Day is perfect; awards are hardly going to come by their way and there are plenty of examples of overly cliched and cheesy lines… but they’re well aware of this and they play it as a strength. Director Christopher Landon is absolutely self-aware and uses all manner of horror genre cliches and cheesy lines to add to the personality, keeping it fun, quirky and, most importantly, very enjoyable. This is best seen right at the very end where one character actually compares it all to Groundhog Day, which Tree, comically, hasn’t seen and isn’t even aware of. It’s a wonderful satire of Hollywood, tired of ideas and just copying what’s come before, repackaging it and feigning ignorance, pretending it’s totally original. They certainly didn’t mention it for a similar film with a repetitive day, Edge of Tomorrow.
A lot of how much we enjoy it though isn’t just the writing, but down to the cast, specifically the leading-lady. The supporting cast are all good, particularly bitchy sorority sister Rachel Matthews and sweet and innocent male love interest Israel Broussard. But the one who really excels here is Jessica Rothe, absolutely deserving of a leading role since her only really high profile role so far has been as Emma Stone’s flatmate in La La Land (she played Alexis by the way – something only hardcore fans of the musical would even have a chance of knowing). Happy Death Day is much more a showcase for her talents, showing she can do more than just sing and dance, but can carry a horror-comedy almost totally single-handedly, showing particular attention to character growth and development (something often overlooked in many films nowadays). Her character is the polar opposite to Bill Murray’s counterpart in Groundhog Day; yes, he’s miserable a lot of the time, but still very likeable. For the first part of Happy Death Day, however, Tree is utterly unlikeable; a rude, irredeemable character we dislike despite her looks; but this opinion quickly changes once the film finds its feet and gets going. Each bad quality she seems to have slowly and believable changes as she understands her situation and tries to change it, becoming self-aware. In a Dickensian manner (a la A Christmas Carol) we quickly fall for Tree and like her very much as she changes to a very charming, quirky and lovable lead character. Props to the writing from Scott Lobdell too, but this is totally down to Rothe who makes the film the joy it is.
It’s impossible to take this film too seriously and to ignore comparisons to Groundhog Day; but you might as well because this is a still a different enough film to not feel like a repetitive rehash (ironically). It’s a shame that it doesn’t live up to it’s horror promotion and shies away from its premise of marrying humour and horror since this could have really strengthened the film and made it more memorable. Nevertheless, this doesn’t at all hamper any enjoyment of Happy Death Day because it’s a very fun one; a bit of horror here, a lot of laughs there, lots of fun throughout with a charismatic, lovable lead. Halloween has never been happier.