Blumhouse Pictures – the booming production company behind horrors massive resurgence – saddled their latest with the tag line, “Get Up. Live Your Day. Get Killed. Again” and it speaks volumes about its film. With a catchy and slasher friendly title such as Happy Death Day, one might think they’d evoke a more clever tagline than one that overtly synopsis the film in the most unimaginative way possible. “Slay the Day,” “Carpe DIE-m,” “Live. Die. Repeat.”. Well, that last one may be taken, but there’s a treasure trove of golden ways to label your film, which director Christopher Landon – who brought us the under-appreciated Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse – steers clear of. Instead, Landon and Blumhouse drop a sharp concept that finds a college student waking up to the same day to find her dying by the hands of a masked slasher, and lazily sticks it with a dull tagline; one that unfortunately mirrors its own film.
When Tree (Jessica Rothe) awakens in a dorm room, she believes it’s simply another morning following a heavy night of drinking. That is until she’s killed by a masked murderer and winds up waking up to the same day with every element playing again. Enlisting the help of Carter (Israel Broussard) – the resident of our films collegiate womb – our heroine must figure out who the killer is in order to defeat her repetitious day. Soon, Tree finds herself coming face to face with more than just her birthday.
Happy Death Day isn’t the first horror film to feature a time loop; Dead End brought the never ending cycle on the road back in 2003 and Triangle took it out to sea in 2009. It’s a plot device that offers the opportunity for lightening to strike the same place (and people) twice, straying from a formula that might become stale. Every reoccurrence offers something new, and within the confines of a horror film, it means keeping us on our toes and our hair on end. Except, when the day in mention is tedious from the start, and in Happy Death Day, it’s a dreary nightmare we can’t wake from.
Playing off the character arch Bill Murray emblazoned in Groundhog Day, Tree goes from stuck-up sorority sister to redemptive figure; a turn that takes multiple deaths to be realized. When she first wakes up, her “walk of shame” through her college quad is controlled yet dull. She pushes the camera with an empowerment that’s refreshing and reflexive of the time, though everything around her feels uninspired. A canvasser attempts to save global warming, sprinklers and a car alarm go off, a fraternity pledge faints, a guy questions her ghosting him and a sorority sister attempts nicety. These are lifeless happenings that should feel breathless and kinetic on a college campus, yet when they continually occur in the same fashion, we wish we were in class.
And we do go to class, though it’s only used to teach us – or rather show us – how immoral her surroundings are as we discover that she’s sleeping with her professor. It effectively establishes the presence of potential killers, which Tree begins uncovering after Carter – who obviously believes her because he has horror movie posters in his dorm room – instructs her to in order to see tomorrow. This is done so with a Kill Bill style list, as potential slashers are discovered to be no more than red herrings. However, they come with an obnoxious moralistic lesson that finds Tree telling a closeted gay man to come out and be true, and her cheating professor to essentially man-up. It’s a self-righteous turn that has our heroine blasting down life’s doors to the bombastic tunes of an anthemic pop song, waking its audience from their potential slumber.
As Tree repeats each kill, we are offered up very little in the slashing department, which is unfortunate because of how effective the use of a baby mask is. It’s a gleeful ode to the likes of Alice, Sweet Alice and Valentine’s Day, which both subvert the synthetic humanity represented in a mask depicting a childlike image. It’s goofy, playful, and when we linger on its toothy smile for long, it works at unsettling us. Landon maintains a stillness while Tree is stalked, hovering over open closets and doors left barely ajar. We feel observed and exposed – which is precisely what the pioneering slashers established – yet when our killer mascot decides voyeurism just isn’t enough, the rush of blood to our head wears thin. Tree is chased, stabbed, and for most of it, killed off screen. It’s a complete waste of creativity that-like the tagline-feels rushed for its U.S. release.
While it wears a mask and brandishes a big knife (and a broken bong in one instance), Happy Death Day unfortunately embraces the idea of college slasher without enrolling in any of the electives that make academia so fun. Instead, what’s offered for credit is a moral tale that looks to correct the various 21st Century provocations that plague society: body shaming, slut shaming, repressed sexuality. In doing so it sits poised on its high horse, feeling more problematic of the times than systematic of the slasher genre. Despite Blumhouse’s reputation in the horror genre – this year’s Get Out on a constant mental loop since I saw it – Happy Death Day is a textbook romantic comedy masquerading as a slasher; one with a GPA that’s as irrevocably lost as its moral compass.