On meaningless mysteries, bloodless violence and timid character arcs in Happy Death Day
Happy Death Day Universal Pictures
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenplay: Scott Lobdell
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Ruby Modine, Phi Vu and Rob Mello
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 36 minutes / 2.35:1
October 13, 2017
(out of four)
Where high concept meets low ambition, that is where you will find Happy Death Day, the year's second time-loop movie about a young woman trying to solve/prevent her own death (Before I Fall being the other). This one is so clever it even references Groundhog Day by name. What it doesn't do is play around with its concept in any way that really takes advantage of it.
At the very least, having regular time-resets offers nifty structural possibilities for what amounts to a simple whodunit. The film intends to kill Theresa (Jessica Rothe) - "Tree" to her friends, loved ones, and possible assailants - as often as it can before she can even start to think about putting any pieces together. It's an awful lot to go through just to learn how to be nicer to people, which is ultimately the lesson the film has prepared for its protagonist. Scott Lobdell's script throws a bunch of unofficial suspects into the mix, most (if not all) of which are on the receiving end of Tree's rudeness, flippancy, selfishness, duplicity or general lack of scruples.
By the time she's finally learned to grow up, she's been through a lot more birthdays than her actual age might suggest. Every daily restart - a "happy birthday" ringtone for a phone call she never answers - is a cruel reminder of time passing, even if time isn't, technically, passing. She wakes up in a dude's dorm room, makes the walk of shame back to her sorority house, meets up with her professor/doctor/illicit lover Gregory, caps the night off with a surprise birthday party, and is eventually murdered by a hooded goon wearing a plastic mask of a bucktoothed baby (the school's mascot, inexplicably). Then she wakes up to that ringtone again. Once she realizes what's going on, she of course alters her daily pattern, but no matter what new circumstances she manufactures or wrenches she throws into her birthday schedule, that baby-faced is killer is always, one way or another, a step ahead of her. Eventually she starts spending her bought time spying on suspects - one per day - to mark each of them off the list one by one.
This is all, in theory, fine. But there's a pronounced conflict between the whodunit portion of the movie and the character recovery/redemption portion. It ultimately doesn't matter who dun it, because the point is she's been so toxic to be around that countless people have motive. Who cares which of them is eventually identified as the killer? (Come to think of it, it would've been great if there wasn't just one answer - that Tree is so awful, everyone happened to have the same idea and it's a crapshoot, on any given version of this day, which of them actually gets to her first. A bit Orient Express-ish. Then again, that's probably a lot more schadenfreude than this movie ever wanted. And in any case, no one asked me.) Except the movie never actually dares to make her all that terrible. She's basically just rude to everyone - that, and she's sleeping with a married guy who's an objectively worse person than she is. Making the character truly despicable - and truly unlikable - would have added some weight to the killer's murderous intentions and made Tree's redemptive arc land. Failing that, Happy Death Day has to rely on an entirely trivial rationale for the killer's actions - which could also work, assuming the film knows how to be a comedy, and knows how to exploit the absurdity of the whole murder narrative. But it doesn't, and it doesn't.
Basically, the movie is far too nice for its own good. It focuses on a victim who's written as a villain that learns to be a better person, except she's really no more noxious than countless self-centered 20-year-olds. It is built on a foundation of perpetual murder, yet it avoids blood and gore as much as it can. It is a dark comedy that can't stomach the very darkness of its implications, and it is a horror movie that can't stomach the violence that is its very premise. Happy Death Day doesn't really want to go in any of the directions it's explicitly pointing toward, so it settles on a sort of compromised middle ground where it doesn't want to be too funny but doesn't want to be scary or brutal, either; where it doesn't want to be sentimental but refuses to get into the mean spirit of things; where it wants to be redemptive but refuses to allow the starting point of that arc to be too low.
I'm not sure what director Christopher Landon even saw in this project if he was so unwilling to follow through on its ideas. You'd think "college slasher version of Groundhog Day" would bring out the imagination in someone - not to mention the sense of humor. Instead, what we get is basically a horror-themed, Halloween-timed conceptual episode of a basic-cable teen drama. (It's shot like one, too.) That the constant deaths are taking an actual physical toll on Tree - X-rays confirm her body has suffered the trauma of every car accident, stab wound and explosion we've gotten to witness - is another wrinkle the movie doesn't really know what to do with.
Then again, those X-rays are also the only indication any violence has taken place at all. Despite its premise, Happy Death Day is firmly in PG-13 territory. You know those movie trailers that hilarious cut off a character right as they drop an F-bomb? "Oh, fu—" That's basically this movie's entire approach to moments of violence. Assailant swings a blunt instrument, cut to Tree waking up the next morning. Repeat. However: Unlike 2015's similarly PG-13 The Final Girls - a meta film that took place inside an early '80s-style teen horror flick - there's some justification for the absence of gore in this case. In The Final Girls, the lack of violence actively undercut what it was doing with genre. But because Happy Death Day is set primarily within its main character's point of view, it only makes sense that we're not seeing blood spurting and bodies getting crunched. Death happens in an instant - it's not like she is around to witness the actual carnage - so it's sensible to cut away at the moment of impact, or otherwise not to linger. (To be fair, there are a couple of cheats that violate this pattern. But still.)
The problem is that, justifiable as that approach may be, in the context of the whole movie it comes across as just another half-measure to be lumped in with all the other half-measures. This movie makes things so much harder on itself than it needed to, and as a result makes it difficult to defend even where it deserves to be defended.
Landon and Lobdell's biggest misstep is a simple miscalculation. That somehow - in a movie about a character reliving the same day over and over again, and re-dying over and over again, as pretty much the most extreme method of self-improvement one could ask for - the most important aspect was the identity of the killer. And that they should go to such great lengths to conceal this identity that they conjure one absolute doozy of a red herring that requires an absurd leap of faith on the audience's part. All that work for an answer to the film's least interesting question.