Jessica Rothe stars as Tree Gelbman, an obnoxious college student and sorority member who makes a daily habit of being as rotten as possible to everyone she crosses paths with. One night, she’s murdered by a masked assailant…only to wake up the next day, and find the exact thing keeps happening, over and over again. Tree struggles to figure out the who and why of her situation but never bothers to ask whether Punxsutawney Phil has spotted his shadow.
“Happy Death Day” is a real letdown, as it never fully commits to either the horror or comedy genre but still thinks it’s more clever than it truly is. Director Christopher Landon (son of TV legend Michael Landon) and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” screenwriter Scott Lobdell have a solid gimmick to play with and fumble almost immediately. It feels off from the start, as every scene is brightly lit and as tonally chipper as a “Pitch Perfect” installment. Once it gets to the horror scenes, the stalk n’ slash sequences are as glib and by-the-book as a lesser “Scream” sequel.
The problem isn’t the PG-13 rating but how this is clearly most comfortable when striving for laughs. Landon’s film comes across as artificial when it’s trying to be sincere and forced when it’s trying to be funny. It doesn’t help that the movie’s trailer is a perfect abbreviation, preferable to sitting through this, and features a spot-on 50 Cent tune that isn’t in the movie.
There are good bits, like a cool transition after an explosion, the birthday music box, the clever set up for the killer’s mask and a moment where a text message distracts from a murder. The score by Bear McCreary is better than you’d find in most slasher movies and the end credits are fun. I also liked how Tree’s one night stand has posters for “They Live,” “Repo Man” and “Mystery Science Theater 3000- The Movie” in his dorm room.
Every bad movie has an irredeemable moment and this one permanently shoots itself in the foot during a comedic montage: Tree’s many attempts to overcome her killer and understand the logic of her predicament include jokey, illogical bits I won’t describe. This portion insults its audience and derails an already indecisive tone. Not helping matters is that most of the characters are obnoxious stereotypes, and there are especially mean spirited moments directed towards Asians and homosexuals.
Here’s another thing that made me really angry: “Happy Death Day” waits until literally the very last scene to half-heartedly address “Groundhog Day,” in the most condescending way imaginable.
Look, “Groundhog Day” isn’t the first to portray a “time loop,” as Phillip K/ Dick’s great short story “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” covered it in 1975, as did the 1990 short film, “12:01PM” (it’s on YouTube- look it up. It’s brilliant). “Source Code” and “Edge of Tomorrow” recently and successfully explored the idea in strictly sci-fi terms. The potential for this slasher comedy with a sci-fi novelty stops after the clever tweak on the opening Universal logo. Lobdell’s multiple endings seem less like a narrative gotcha and more of poor test screenings demanding additional, better endings.
Rothe (who next appears in the title role of a musical film adaptation of “Valley Girl”) works hard in the lead but fails to make the oddly named Tree sympathetic or endearing. Tree’s journey to redemption rings false- note how her putting things right in the end only demonstrates what a jerk she still is! What the filmmakers clearly don’t get is that Tree isn’t the hero of “Happy Death Day” and that, as in any lesser teen horror movie, we’re rooting for the killer to show up with a big, sharpened knife and wearing a good pair of running shoes.
One and a Half Stars
–originally published in Maui Time Weekly