It’s Halloween season, which means movie studios are cashing in on the spooky sensibilities stirring inside our skeletons. Blumhouse Productions has spent 17 years spitting out horror movies by corporate mandate, which occasionally results in something worthwhile like “Get Out”—but mostly it means getting the fifty-seventh “Paranormal Activity” spinoff. This October, the Blumhouse team is kicking things off with “Happy Death Day”, a moviegoing experience that I’d trade for a demon torturing me in my own home.
The film tells the “Groundhog Day”-inspired story of Tree (sigh), a college student who gets murdered repeatedly in a time loop until she can discover her killer’s identity. This phenomenon is never explained, which is ok: I have no desire to know what banal explanation the filmmakers would’ve come up with. “Happy Death Day” is a horror/comedy that doesn’t work as a horror or a comedy, and barely works as a movie.
From the opening moments, screenwriter Scott Lobdell gives the impression that his ideas of college life were drawn from bad college movies rather than real experience. The campus is populated by caricatures—worst of all the shrill sorority girls, who constantly undermine the film’s flimsy attempts at a feminist statement. Tree is one such sorority girl, because the movie confuses ‘protagonist with room to grow’ with ‘protagonist you hate from the outset’. At least she’s not alone in despicability: the most collegiate aspect of the movie is the cast’s collective acting ability.
Before Tree ever repeats her birthday (yes, that’s the day she’s stuck in, which is ‘important’ to the film’s message in a way that’s as subtle as a knife between the eyes), “Happy Death Day” is already rife with laziness. Disposable side characters come and go; plot threads are loudly announced rather than strung together; Tree gets on her hands and knees to inspect a creepy music box in the middle of an abandoned underpass. There’s reprieve from the inanity when she’s first killed, but then we have to relive the movie’s events just like she does—and it is laborious.
The film’s bastardized concept of character development is embarrassing: Tree becomes a more confident and moral person as the time loop drags on, because who wouldn’t? That’s about what the film’s argument amounts to. Character change is glossed over via montage set to an aging pop song; the actual line, “when you live the same day over and over, you start to see who you really are” is spoken. One character even mentions “Groundhog Day”, which from this movie is less a tribute and more the ultimate insult.
It’s only 90 minutes long, but the blatant explanation through dialogue and logical impossibilities (even in a time loop movie) extend it to a hellish eternity. At one point, it tidily wraps up its surface level conflicts and seems to end, but then goes on for an additional eternity. Its mercilessness is only staved off by some laughs—mostly unintentional, save for a couple jokes that land. There’s maybe one successful jump scare. Save your money, fans of enjoying things.
“Happy Death Day” has flashes of interesting cinematography, in the same manner that a freshman year film student tilts his camera to demonstrate awareness of form but not of function. That’s the limit of nice things I can say about it. If you’re forced to see it, at least do so with someone you care about. Sitting next to them for 90 minutes will be better than anything unfolding on screen.