Exciting but Frustrating
Happy Death Day should have been good. Groundhog Day redone as a teen slasher horror? Are you kidding me? Count me in! The opportunity to watch a miserable prig of a person on the receiving end of the perfect comeuppance... over and over. A circular loop of bloody kill shots... each to the same person. 90 minutes of wink-wink send-ups to the most legendary moments of the horror genre. What’s not to like?
Well, let’s begin with the reality that it never really beds down and fully commits to any of those ideas thoroughly enough. It tries very hard to spend ample time with each, and still manages to tug on the ol’ heartstrings with some moments of heartfelt drama. Heck, it even throws in a few much-appreciated nods to camp. But while it occasionally bloodies the jaw of its intended target with the perfectly-landed blow, it more often than not misses with a flailing windmill that leaves us shaking our heads, thinking of what it could have been. It is a hoot when it works. There just aren’t enough of those moments.
Christopher Landon directs from a script by comic book writer Scott Lobdell that follows the same thinking as Groundhog Day, wherein the main character experiences the same day over and over. In the case of Happy Death Day, the Phil Connors schlub is annoying sorority girl Theresa (Jessica Rothe) who dies at the end of each day.
Hung up in an endless loop, Theresa wakes up on her birthday in the bed of some random guy named Carter (Israel Broussard) with whom she may or may not have had a one night stand. We learn that she is not a very good person and seems totally at ease being the mean girl to everyone she encounters. She throws away the birthday cupcake given by her dorm mate, blows off a guy with whom she’s started dating, refuses to answer her father’s phone calls, and even ridicules a sorority-mate for eating food that isn’t very “Kappa-like.” She’s such a despicable person, we cheer when she meets her untimely death at the hands of a mask-wearing killer. Only, she’s not dead as she wakes up again in Carter’s dorm room. Lather, rinse repeat.
As was the case in Groundhog Day, the fun of the scenario comes from the way the character begins to accept what is happening and works to find a way to turn it into an advantage, in this case, to solve her own murder. Theresa begins to soften a bit and even lets Carter in on what is happening with hopes that he can help unmask her eventual killer.
Theresa’s change is meant to show that she is growing as a person which, in turn, means that we are supposed to start liking her. But we don’t. There’s not enough to her character despite an admirable turn by Rothe) for that to happen. So we carry on, not really caring whether she meets her predetermined fate or whether she finally discovers the identity of her deranged killer. Theresa seems like just another poor miserable sap we love watching die. But even that begins to wear thin as the film’s numerous tonal shifts and out-of-the-blue red herrings bring everything to a screeching halt. Comedy works in horror. And so do twists. There are plenty of successful examples to pull from. But here the jarring shifts to humor, then to serious human emotion, then to mystery, then back to terror are way too abrupt and never let the story breathe. It always feels more interested in getting to its twist ending.
Happy Death Day takes a while to find its rhythm and once it does there’s enough good stuff to keep the well-worn gimmick alive. It is far more enjoyable when it doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. Plus, there’s plenty of franchise-making material, especially considering the effectively creepy get-up worn by the killer, which includes a creepy plastic mask with a pulled-over hoodie. Go get your Halloween costumes now, folks.
Happy Death Day will be an exciting treat for some, and a frustrating trick for others. But we can all agree that at a briskly-paced 96 minutes, it’s never wears out its welcome
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated “PG-13” for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.