Every once in a while it’s nice to go see a movie just to have fun. Usually when I write these reviews I have some concept in mind that I want to get across, and I have a pretty good idea of what that’s going to be from the trailer before I even go to the movie. That was not the case this time. I thought this movie was just going to be kind of dumb. Dumb but fun! The trailer just looked fun.
It was a very simple concept. A woman in college wakes up on her birthday in a strange room after a one night stand. Later that day she is murdered by a masked psychopath— only to wake up again in the same bed to live the day over and over until she can solve her own murder. Basically, this appeared to be Groundhog Day translated into a horror film where the role of Bill Murray will now be played by Jessica Roeth. As I’ve said a few times before, I’m not really much of a horror movie fan. I’m especially not really a slasher movie fan. But the concept intrigued me enough that I really wanted to check it out.
I’m glad I did. It was fun. But there actually was more than that too. I’m not going to pretend this was an innovative masterpiece that will change the focus of cinema or even horror. It is not. Not at all. But, it does a few things that correct the basic problem I have with horror movies and make it quite enjoyable.
Namely, it tells a story — a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It tells a story with a character that is interesting, complex, flawed and experiences change and growth throughout the narrative. It tells a story where interesting stuff happens to keep the audience engaged.
You see, we live in a franchise-driven world. I’ve talked about this before, because franchise-ness has definitely infected the superhero and sci-fi movies that I really enjoy. But franchise-ness has been big part of the horror world forever. One of the first things I learned when I became a creative writing major oh so very long ago is that the simplest key to a good short story or screenplay is for the writer to ask themself “what is different about today?” That is to say, that when you begin a story, you create a world with a status quo. The reason this is a story is that today, the status quo has been upset. Something has happened that creates tension that drives the story forward. What is that thing? This is sort of the problem with franchise films, particularly in the horror genre. The reason the first Halloween or Friday the 13th films work is that we, as viewers, see that the world has suddenly changed. A young woman is suddenly confronted with a murderous killer in a scary mask. How will she resolve this situation? The reason that the 47th installment in each of those franchises fails is that understanding that each film in the series happens in the same continuous world means accepting that there are just constant murders in Haddonfield, Illinois or at Camp Crystal Lake and really, WHY THE FUCK ARE PEOPLE STILL GOING THERE? STAY AWAY!!!
So in effect, horror fell into this trap of making all movies basically the same. A killer preys on unsuspecting victims. in order to keep people paying, the films resort to trying to kill in more innovative or surprising ways, hence the over utilization of the jump scare. The details of the story aren’t really important generally. Nothing is “different” about today. It’s just a world where people get murdered by masked psychopaths a lot.
Happy Death Day escapes this. Even though at essence it’s a slasher film, the story isn’t so much about “what crazy ways can the murderer kill people?” The story is about “why is this happening and how do we resolve it?” And on a deeper level, it is about getting to know the protagonist, Tree, and what makes her who she is. It is a story about watching her grow and progress as a character that has found herself set against the challenges of the world that the narrative creates. It is about… drumroll… a strong female character.
And that is the second thing I loved about this movie. About halfway through the film, I realized that since Roethe’s Tree is basically a female version of Murray’s Phil from Groundhog Day, this could have just as easily been an actual remake of Groundhog Day. One could pitch this film as “Groundhog Day, but with a chick!” In fact, they probably did. And I know that sounds silly… especially if you’ve seen the film (and you’ll see that it’s quite different), but that’s basically how Ghostbusters(2016) was pitched. And why I didn’t like it very much. They replaced Bill Murray with Kristen Wiig and then didn’t think about things much beyond that. It was just a formulaic movie which would have been totally forgettable if it wasn’t part of a preestablished franchise. In my review of Ghostbusters(2016) I asked if anyone would care about the film if it were called “Molepeople Killers” but were otherwise the same plot. Of course they wouldn’t. But here, with Happy Death Day, we have a movie where even without the Groundhog Day name, it is still interesting. This is the story of a woman who is not very likable. In fact, she’s kind of a bitch. But she finds herself in an impossible situation and she must grow and change in order to resolve it. Does she become a perfect person? No, not at all. She’s actually still not the best person in the end. But she changes and grows and becomes even more complex than she was in the beginning and that makes the story interesting.
And that made this a lot more fun than most slasher movies — or at least a lot more interesting and original. The original Halloween is one of the few slasher films that I really do like. Mostly because even 39 years later, I can watch it and I can see the director, John Carpenter, inventing the final girl trope out of whole cloth. There’s an amazing subversion of the damsel-in-distress story in that film that gets complicated by a statement about sexual repression and purity being played out as a murderous psychodrama (seriously, if you like horror read Carolyn Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws). Here we’re doing something similar. Christopher Landon has created a world where rather than just being the final girl, Tree is the first girl and in fact the only girl. She is in many ways the antithesis of the final girl archetype (something more and more common in modern horror and slasher films) as she is sexually mature and aggressive and anything but pure and good. She is simply “real.” And yet she has to learn to navigate a slasher world nonetheless. On her own terms.
And the result is an engaging and original story. One that was kind of fun to watch even if you hate the genre. And because of the originality, it becomes a slasher film that doesn’t need to lean heavily into slasher tropes. There aren’t really many jump scares. The murders aren’t that crazy or innovative. They don’t need to be. The story and the characters push the film along. You become invested in them as individuals rather than as cannon fodder for the killer.
Is it a perfect movie? Not really. There are some things that just don’t work if you think about them too hard. The film kind of wants to be a mystery thriller but it’s not really “solvable” because not all of the pieces you need to solve the mystery are there. There are some things that if you think about them too hard just don’t make sense. The acting, writing and direction are serviceable but no one here is going to win an Academy Award.
It doesn’t matter.
It’s fun and worth watching, especially if you like these kinds of movies. And if you don’t like these kinds of movies, it’s original enough that it might be worth giving a try as a rental or something. It’s nice to see something new and different come about. Hopefully Hollywood will take more chances like that in the future. Of course, reports are that a sequel is already in the works… HOVADAMMIT!
★★.9☆☆ (2.99999999999999999 out of 5 stars)