Usually, a horror film with a total production budget of $5 million and a relatively unknown cast would be a recipe for disaster. And that’s especially true if that film is being rushed out to cinemas, just in time for a release date on Friday the 13th before Halloween. And yet “Happy Death Day” is surprisingly great. It’s not a horror movie, it’s more of a horror-comedy with romantic elements thrown in for good measure. And it will delight you – but not for the reasons you think.
Ok, it’s impossible to describe “Happy Death Day” without also invoking one of the all-time comedy classics: “Groundhog Day.” After all, “Happy Death Day” is a horror film loosely based on the premise of “Groundhog Day” – a person wakes up each day, doomed to repeat this day, over and over again, until they’ve learned an important lesson.
Only, in this case, the person (Tree Gelbman, played by Jessica Rothe of “La La Land”) wakes up each day on her birthday, knowing that she will be somehow murdered by an assailant wearing a pig mask. Each day, the details of the murder change – one day she might be stabbed, another she might be strangled, and on another, blown up and set on fire – but each day ends with Tree meeting her tragic fate. And each morning, she wakes up in the bed of a cute college guy (Carter, played by Israel Broussard) and must figure it all out again.
Thus, part of the real appeal of “Happy Death Day” is not the blood and gore you might typically associate with a horror film – it’s watching the same scenes unfold again and again, and seeing how Tree tries to piece together all the clues. By the end of the second murder, you know exactly how it will all turn out. The only thing that changes, really, is the type of death she must undergo on her birthday.
If “Groundhog Day” provides the narrative backbone of the movie, then slasher films like “Scream” provide the subtext. Where “Happy Death Day” is so brilliant is how it turns the typical beautiful girl-meets-slasher plotline into something played for laughs. The film is humorous, even if the humor is dark. And yet film critics everywhere have described the film as “giddy” and “playful.” It’s meant to be a send-up of the classic slasher films. There is plenty of evil to go around, yes, but keep in mind: we’re dealing with a killer who wears a baby pig mask.
There are plenty of potential suspects for who might be murdering Tree every day. You see, Tree is not a particularly nice person. She’s smug, she’s rude, she’s self-centered and she’s a snob. She reacts in horror not when she wakes up in the bed of some guy she doesn’t know, but when she finds out that she’s in a lowly college dorm!
Who could be the person behind the pig mask? Some potential suspects include the cute boy Carter she apparently bedded the night before, her roommate, a fellow sorority girl with plenty of attitude, a professor who she’s slept with, the vengeful wife of that professor, a local serial killer who’s been locked up by the police, or one of her fellow college students. Complicating matters on campus is the fact that the mascot of the fictional university turns out to be a pig, so anyone and everyone could be wearing one of those pig masks.
You can already start to sense how inventive “Happy Death Day” is, right? It’s a horror-comedy and now it’s also a romantic comedy. That’s because Tree and Carter may or may not have a thing for each other. Carter is the classic cutie college kid who has a crush on someone as beautiful as Tree, but Tree dismisses him as “unpopular” and as a nobody who lives in a dorm.
And, yet, as the movie moves along, you get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this could be a case of opposites attract. We want to know how Tree ended up in his bed, and whether or not the two will make a lasting relationship. Along the way, there are plenty of comic lines and funny events, which is why this is also a romantic comedy.
Most slasher-horror movies don’t have anything real to say – they simply exist to scare the living daylights out of you. But “Happy Death Day” seems to have a message, albeit a simple one, for audiences: live each day to become a better person. As Tree tries to unravel the mystery of her own death, she must confront the fact that she’s not a very nice person and that plenty of people probably want to see her dead. That’s a sobering fact for anyone to accept.
And so Tree goes through the motions of trying to change her life. She believes that if she learns her lesson and becomes a nicer human being, she will eventually make it through her birthday without being stabbed, strangled, or blown up. In short, she must travel a path of self-knowledge, and we see her becoming more self-aware as the movie progresses. That is a lesson, really, for all the viewers out there to change their lives and become a better person.
There is something inherently likable about “Happy Death Day” – the film is not trying to be something that it’s not. It’s funny, it’s smart and it has characters like Tree and Carter that grow on you over the course of the movie. The premise of a “Groundhog Day” movie that’s also a slasher film in the vein of “Scream” is simply brilliant. In short, “Happy Death Day” will defy your expectations: it is surprisingly great and a film that’s definitely worth seeing.