At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Happy Death Day

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Horror-Mystery-Comedy/ Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello/ Runtime: 96 minutes

I feel I should start this review off by saying that I kid you not movie goers there is literally a joke at the very end of the campy horror film that I am reviewing for your reading pleasure, and this is not a spoiler, I promise, where the main girl who has been going through the absolute nightmarish scenario that is this film’s plot finds herself, when having her scenario compared to the 1993 Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, having to admit that not only is she unfamiliar with Groundhog Day, but upon further pressing of the topic, also finds herself going so far as to say that she’s also not sure who Bill Murray is, either. Now granted normally this would cause me a great deal of alarm, but this time I just decided to relax and go along with it. That is because I realized that the following exchange I just told you about in a nutshell, manages to capture exactly what kind of audience Happy Death Day is targeting to see it in theaters.

The answer in regards to who that would be, for those of you who don’t know, happens to be younger audiences who not only haven’t yet witnessed every horror trick that this film’s bag manages to possess yet who also can’t immediately recognize that this is a horror/comedy/ mystery flick that’s sole ambition in regards to what it wants to be is to be a not-that-clever rip-off of Murray’s masterpiece, but with an obvious yet also schlocky fun slasher-film twist. Indeed it’s almost as if some creative type had enough sense to go to the front brass at Blumhouse Productions and pitch them what could’ve been a truly one-trick premise of “What if we did Groundhog Day, but reinvented it as a college-campus slasher flick with a PG-13 rating so we could go after high school kids who’ll gobble this up?” Of course, Blumhouse, being Blumhouse, decided to take a chance and bite. Yet while Happy Death Day is really truly never anything more than that I still found myself left the screening with mixed emotions. This is because while I do admire this film for actually being a fairly competent old-school, final-girl-versus-mindless stalker homage-type film I really truly do wish the director of this film as well as his cast could have expanded on the concept a wee bit more instead of squandering its potential with a truly cliché ending.

The plot is as follows: So we find ourselves focusing in on a girl named Tree’s (and yes that is the girl’s real name….I mean come on I know this is low budget but it doesn’t cost much to change her name to something like Elm…just saying) birthday, and she begins this normally happy day for 90+% of the world’s population by waking up, hungover, with a miserable headache, and in the dorm room of an underclassman she met the night before while intoxicated named Carter (Israel Broussard). Thus as the film progresses, Tree simply goes about her day as we see her being a witch to her roommate, meeting with the fellow — and equally nasty — members of her sorority house, and sneaking away in order to meet up with a married professor (Charles Aitken) with whom she is sleeping (oh college life). However later that night while on her way to a party, Tree soon realizes she is being stalked by a masked killer (named Karma….I wish). Yet while the killer is successful in gruesomely eliminating Tree she all of a sudden finds herself waking up in Carter’s bed once again thus rebooting the same murderous cycle, and it isn’t long before Tree soon realizes that the universe is absolutely and completely determined to make her relive this day, over and over, starting from this point. Thus Tree, with the help of a slightly incredulous at first Carter, decides to investigate and thwart her own murder not only so she can get her life back in order, but also so she can get out of this time loop lest it keep on going forever….

Now when Happy Death Day works, I feel I can honestly say that it’s usually due to the performance of Jessica Rothe. That’s not to say that the supporting cast doesn’t do good work for they do manage to do the best with what the script provides them with Israel Broussard coming out the most unscathed as Carter. It’s just that Jessica manages to prove such a charismatic, comically unlikable yet ultimately worthy Scream Queen that we can’t help but find ourselves simply enjoying the act of watching her maneuver through the unusual chaos that this event on her birthday has brought her. Indeed I can’t help but feel like we are quite possibly looking at a future A-List celebrity a ’la Charlize Theron or Renee Zellweger in the works here.

Now if you swap out Jessica Rothe’s self-centered and spoiled sorority diva with Bill Murray’s egotistical and selfish weatherman it won’t take much longer after that till you see just how Happy Death Day follows Harold Ramis’ 1993 classic Groundhogs Day, to a tee especially when like Murray in Groundhog Day Tree wakes up with retained knowledge of everything that happened to her on all of the previous “birthdays,” yet no one else around her knows they are repeating the day. Also Tree even goes through several of the same existential crises that Murray faced in Groundhogs Day such as when she starts to wear and eat whatever the hell she wants, knowing it won’t have any consequence when she starts the day over. In a unique twist however it becomes apparent that despite possessing seemingly unlimited chances that every time Tree is killed the physical wear and tear that her body goes through each time the killer murders carries over with her. Thus now despite getting the chance to go through the scenario over and over again we also see there is a chance that if the killer doesn’t kill her the wear and tear being done to her body just might.

Indeed it is in that regard that, aside from the physical wear twist that is thrown in to shake things up, Happy Death Day actually uses Tree’s, for lack of a better phrase, wax-on/wax-off/repeat dilemma to humorous effect, thus turning this movie at moments into much more of a comedy than it is a horror film which, while there are moments where the humor does work, if we’re being honest does kind of suck in one really big way. This is honestly due to no other reason than the fact that because the film makes the choice to not fully embrace its horror elements, Happy Death Day does waste quite the memorable killer in the form of its Baby Face stalker aka the person hunting Tree who is wearing black jeans and a hoodie, but for the piece de resistance is sporting an quite disturbingly cheerful, cherub-faced baby mask complete with round, pinchable cheeks, bright blue and unblinking eyes, and one giant tooth that doesn’t quite fit in the ghoul’s mouth. Indeed while in the movie it should be quite the disturbing sight to see this oversized infant trying to plunge a dagger into chest of our heroine the director instead decides to usually opt for as many suspense-deflating laughs as he can accumulate rather than playing it grimly serious and just going straight for the jugular with this truly unique predator in the horror film pantheon.

All in all though and at the end of the day if you are the kind of person who wants their horror films to be chock full of blood and guts then I’m sorry to say this, but “Happy Death Day” isn’t the right movie for you. However if you are the kind of person who wouldn’t mind enjoying some scares with a little bit of humor mixed in with a pretty good lead performance while all the while trying to figure out a very clever little mystery then maybe just maybe you should plan on seeing “Happy Death Day.” Who knows? It might just be up your alley. On a scale of 1-5 I give Happy Death Day a solid 2.5 out of 5.