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Review: Happy Death Day (2017)

Happy Death Day (2017)

Directed by: Christopher Landon
Premise: A female college student (Jessica Rothe) is murdered by a masked killer on the night of her birthday. She keeps reliving the same day over and over again and attempts to discover the identity of her killer.  

What Works: Happy Death Day is a slasher movie twist on the time-loop premise made famous in Groundhog Day. This movie does a few interesting things with that idea. The lead character is murdered in a different way at the end of each day and so the filmmakers are able to include a lot of variety that keeps the movie interesting. One of the appeals of the slasher genre is the creativity with which victims are dispatched and Happy Death Day plays on that idea in a way that is somewhat self-aware. The movie also raises the stakes of her situation. Even though this college student is trapped in a time loop, she is not immortal. The character sustains the damage of each death and it starts to wear on her body with the implication that she will eventually die of her injuries. Happy Death Day is well shot and creatively edited. The film transitions from one incarnation to another with some very smooth edits. It also has a sense of humor about itself. Sometimes the humor is obvious and in other places it is quite deadpan but the humor is a necessary component for this premise and the filmmakers manage the tone, including comedy without diminishing the impact of the horror.

What Doesn’t: Happy Death Day repurposes the signature idea of Groundhog Day. Harold Ramis’ 1993 movie is not the only film ever made about a time loop; Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow used a similar idea and did it very well. But Groundhog Day is clearly the point of reference for Happy Death Day and the filmmakers try to replicate the feel and ethos of that film but fall short in several critical ways. The movie’s major downfall is its lead character. As is the case in most time loop stories, the protagonist begins the film as a narcissist and she gradually learns to appreciate life and treat others with respect. Actress Jessica Rothe does a good job in Happy Death Day insofar as she does exactly what the script calls upon her to do. Rothe’s character begins as a stereotype of a snobbish college sorority member and she is cruel and dismissive of everyone in her path. The problem is that the filmmakers misjudge how awful to make her and Rothe’s character never recovers the audience’s sympathies. For that matter, virtually everyone in Happy Death Day is stupid or mean or both and it makes the movie off-putting.  Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day was also disagreeable but Murray possessed a charm that retained his likability. Just as critically, the rehabilitation of Murray’s character was believable and Happy Death Day fails here as well. The change in Rothe’s character is not convincing. She never really learns anything about herself and the plot doesn’t offer her decisive moments in which she makes character-defining choices. In fact, most everything about Happy Death Day feels artificial. The female college students speak and behave in the way that a middle aged male screenwriter probably imagines that they do. Happy Death Day is also a murder mystery with the protagonist trying to piece together the motive and identity of her killer. The mystery isn’t very interesting and the film has an overabundance of red herrings. As a time loop movie, Happy Death Day fails to take advantage of its gimmick for either the character arc or the murder mystery. It has creative kills but it does not do much else with the character’s predicament. 

Bottom Line: Happy Death Day intends to be a murder mystery and a rehabilitation story. Unfortunately, it isn’t very good at either. It is slickly made and has a welcome sense of humor but its characters are too unlikable and its premise isn’t utilized well enough.  

Episode: #671 (October 29, 2017)