By Zak Sharif
In Blumhouse Productions’ latest film, “Happy Death Day,” Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds herself stuck in a time warp, constantly waking up on her same birthday and getting murdered that same night. In order to break the cycle, Tree determines she must stop her killer before he ends her life and possibly learn a lesson or two about herself along the way. It’s a horror of repetition, and as an audience member, one gets much the same feeling. For as much as “Happy Death Day” tries to strike a chord with the viewer, each scene feels as though it has been done before, leaving the film to tread water for its two-hour runtime. Add in an outlandish ending that only serves to ruin any good moments the film’s first two acts created and “Happy Death Day” is a clear example of an idea that should have never broken out of the purgatory of the writer’s room.
“Happy Death Day” starts and finishes as a replication of other, better works. The premise itself is most obviously borrowed from the comedy classic “Groundhog Day.” “Death Day” even attempts to humorously acknowledge the lineage, but a throwaway one-liner can’t make up for the unoriginal premise. From there, the movie begins to cycle through the typical horror tropes – bratty sorority girl Tree Gelbman moves through life in her own bubble, living for her wild Greek parties and quick trysts with her biology professor, never sparing a thought for anyone but herself. Of course, beneath such a coarse exterior lies a layer of pain, and the acceptance of that hurt proves a pivotal moment in Tree’s development throughout the film. If she wants to escape her living hell, Tree discovers that she’s going to have to stop trying to escape her own demons first. These story beats are as old as the horror genre itself, and “Happy Death Day” does nothing to add or subvert the tropes it so liberally borrows. From the first scene that hits the reel, the viewer already knows the story of “Death Day” and can predict just how it’s about to unfold – no matter the twists that are haphazardly added on to the film’s third act.
Though the plot may be formulaic, the first two acts of “Happy Death Day” contain a surprising amount of charm, courtesy of a few all-in performances and a high degree of campiness. Each time Tree awakens on the same day, Rothe sells every moment of exaggerated bitchiness and every night of gruesome death. In all her emotions, it’s perfectly clear just how much fun Rothe is having, making sure even the flattest instance of humor or cheapest of scares land as best they can. In addition, the film’s embrace of camp serves to elevate some of the sillier moments of the script into something much more entertaining. In an especially humorous sequence near the midpoint of the film, Tree begins to find liberation in her purgatory, eventually culminating in her gleefully marching out of a dorm room completely naked while bright pop music blasts on the soundtrack. Moments of ridiculousness like that give “Happy Death Day” its highlights, illustrating that the film is best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Those lighter moments interspersed with a few well done jump scares could’ve made for a decent, albeit forgettable film. Instead, “Happy Death Day” chooses to butcher any goodwill it possessed with its outlandish, illogical third act. As soon as the film hits the midpoint, the plot begins to lose steam. With most of its already tired tricks worn thin, “Happy Death Day” attempts to justify its continued runtime by inserting an inane late stage plot twist. Lacking any real justification or foreshadowing necessary to make the twist work, it instead serves to confuse and grate, with a number of viewers in my particular showing audibly groaning at the screen. With the story devolving into absurdity, the goofy campiness quickly becomes befuddling, and “Happy Death Day’s” greatest strength becomes its worst enemy. By attempting to stretch a thin premise with an unnecessary and ill plotted twist, “Happy Death Day” ends much worse than it started.
Blumhouse Productions has built a reputation for quality horror films, from the “Insidious” series to the recent breakout hit “Get Out.” Unfortunately, “Happy Death Day” is not one of those successes. Saddled with an unoriginal premise and poor plotting, “Happy Death Day” fails to provide enough screams or laughs to justify its existence. Though there remain bright moments, courtesy of some well done camp and humorous performances, “Happy Death Day” still just cannot manage to find its footing outside of typical horror tropes and hang ups. Tree Gelbman just wants to escape her prison and move onto the next day. After sitting in a theater for two hours watching “Happy Death Day,” viewers will feel much the same way.
“Happy Death Day” was released in theaters nationwide on Oct. 13, 2017.
Contact Zak Sharif at zsharif ‘at’ stanford.edu.