Happy Death Day (2017) Movie Review

By: Will Ashton (Three Beers) –

There’s a poetic irony to Hollywood redoing the Groundhog Day formula over and over again. Sure, the formula is now mechanical and overdone, but frankly, that’s the point, right? At their best, these time-loop movies have a playful, spunky, funny attitude to them. They use the formula to twist different genres and the better ones have fun with the seemingly unlimited possibilities thrown in their wake. That’s why movies like Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, and Triangle succeed while others like this spring’s Before I Fall fail to compete. Thankfully, Happy Death Day knows how to have good, cheeky fun with its premise. Never pushing well beyond its formulaic confines, yet ultimately using its repetitiveness to its advantage, it’s a cheesy, campy horror-comedy delight. Sometimes it’s good to have something that’s a little familiar.

There’s a poetic irony to Hollywood redoing the Groundhog Day formula over and over again. Sure, the formula is now mechanical and overdone, but frankly, that’s the point, right? At their best, these time-loop movies have a playful, spunky, funny attitude to them. They use the formula to twist different genres and the better ones have fun with the seemingly unlimited possibilities thrown in their wake. Because, quite frankly, it’s hard to make a movie better than Groundhog Day. In many ways, Harold Ramis’s 1993 classic perfected the formula. Even when you try to do different things, you’re basically making a weaker version of a better film. But at the same time, isn’t that like saying people shouldn’t make more movies because they’ll likely never compete with Citizen Kane? They’re very likely right, but doesn’t that defeat the purpose of making movies? Isn’t it fair to say that most movies aren’t necessarily trying to become classics? It’s not the best argument in the world, I’m aware, but I believe there’s some validity to it. Happy Death Day, for all its various faults, owns up to its shortcomings, and it doesn’t let its tongue-in-cheek attitude get too obnoxious or overbearing. At least, not for this particular viewer. It simply produces a bouncy, enjoyable time at the movies, particularly for the teenage crowd, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s a poetic irony to Hollywood redoing the Groundhog’s Day formula over and over again. Sure, the formula is now mechanical and overdone, but frankly, that’s the point, right? At their best, these time-loop movies have a playful, spunky, funny attitude to them. They use the formula to twist different genres and the better ones have fun with the seemingly unlimited possibilities thrown in their wake. In this version, we follow Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a bratty medical student and sorority sister who seemingly spends her days getting loaded, banging her fit med professor Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken), and being rude to everyone, including her roommate and her father. But on her birthday, a holiday that Tree doesn’t hold in high esteem, something quite peculiar happens. She’s followed by a stranger in a goofy baby mask and brutally murdered, only to wake up in the dorm room of nice guy Carter Davis (Isreal Broussard), which is where she woke up the morning prior. Did she have a weird nightmare? Is she suffering from deja vu? She spends the day in a daze, only to be murdered, yet again, that night. And then she wakes up in Carter’s dorm again, and the cycle continues. And then it continues. Then it continues again. And she realizes that, for reasons unbeknown to her (and to the audience), she’s reliving her birthday (and death day!) over and over, and that pattern isn’t going to stop until she finds out who it is that’s murdering her.

A Toast

There’s a poetic irony to Hollywood redoing the Groundhog’s Day formula over and over again. Sure, the formula is now mechanical and overdone, but frankly, that’s the point, right? At their best, these time-loop movies have a playful, spunky, funny attitude to them, and they change things up. A key factor in the success of both Groundhog’s Day and Edge of Tomorrow is the strength and charisma of their lead actors. Bill Murray and Tom Cruise brought rich personality to their main characters, letting us watch as they try to adapt to their newfound situations in funny and characteristically telling ways. The same can be said for Happy Death Day and Jessica Rothe — an exceptionally bright, wickedly expressive actress who’ll hopefully propel to bigger, better things after this part. Her on-screen journey from self-entitled brat to kindhearted sweetheart is believable and well-realized through the wit and versatility Rothe brings to Tree. Hell, she even makes you believe that a person is called Tree! That should count for major brownie points.

There’s a poetic irony to Hollywood redoing the Groundhog’s Day formula over and over again. Sure, the formula is now mechanical and overdone, but frankly, that’s the point, right? Director Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) also brings a fun energy and zippiness to the proceedings, never letting you get bored even if you’re aware of all the tropes. Self-awareness in horror-comedy is tricky business. Sometimes it does wonders, like in Scream. Other times, like in Netflix’s recent The Babysitter, it can become smug and grating. Happy Death Day falls somewhere down the middle. It’s never as clever as it desperately hopes to be, or thinks it is, but it’s also routinely funny and endearingly charming. Its fun-loving spirit is only matched by its zest for never taking itself too seriously, except for a few moments towards the end. Some will be annoyed by how tame it can be, especially for a slasher killer flick, but there’s a gentle sincerity throughout that’s more likable than not.

Beer Two

There’s a poetic irony to Hollywood redoing the Groundhog’s Day formula over and over again. Especially since, after a point, they learn to take more risks and get more enjoyment out of what’s possible. It’s always entertaining to watch characters get a kick out of what they can do with their limitless possibilities, yet with Happy Death Day, the PG-13 rating is both a blessing and a hindrance. The general lack of blood and foul language (minus the sole f-bomb dropping) makes the movie too toothless for its own good. The rich potential for extravagant deaths and over-the-top antics are shortsighted by the safeguarded rating; it’s hard to really get away with murder when you approach this premise with safety gloves. Yet, through its PG-13 rating, Happy Death Day also avoids the risk of fetishizing the premise of a young girl dying over and over again. It’s possible that, if given the R-rating, this would’ve become too sinister or mean-spirited. Or it perhaps would’ve been, ahem, overkill. Happy Death Day never gets off on killing Tree several times. And that’s maybe for the best. Despite all the silliness, it’s also genuinely interested in its own little murder mystery, even if it’s not hard to predict. That helps add to its innocent charm. Its general audience-friendly rating prevents it from reaching its full potential, but it also keeps it from going too extreme in the opposite direction — to the point where it’s overeager to go into some Final Destination 3-level nastiness.

Beer Three

There’s a poetic irony to Hollywood redoing the Groundhog’s Day formula. And it’s fun to see Hollywood finally doing Groundhog’s Day in the horror genre. But as a horror movie, Happy Death Day is very mild. There are moments of light tension, but it’s also not particularly scary, which is ultimately disappointing. Despite the straightforward horror set-up at the beginning, Happy Death Day quickly goes into comedy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it never finds the right amount of tension and suspense. It’s a little half-hearted in the horror department. And while that’s not something that kills it overall, it does take away from some of the fun. If you’re making Groundhog’s Day into a horror film, you should relish in it!

Verdict

There’s a poetic irony to the Groundhog’s Day formula. And while no film has successfully matched the same heights of that comedy great, Happy Death Day is nevertheless a decent, highly enjoyable —if overly routine — B-level effort. Yes, you have seen this formula done over and over again, but when it’s done well — and with a fun attitude — it’s hard to complain. It’s not quite a scream, but Happy Death Day proves there’s still life in the time-loop genre. That’s enough to make you go through this formula all over again.

Happy Death Day (2017) Drinking Game

Take a Drink: every time Tree is killed. Play this one responsibly.

Take a Drink: every time a character says “bitch” or “biotch.”

Take a Drink: every time Tree repeats the day or relives a part of her birthday.

Take a Drink: whenever a character mentions another film.

Do a Shot: when you discover the REAL killer.

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