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Happy Death Day: Movie Review

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In the nearly 25 years since the release of Groundhog Day, starring the incomparable Bill Murray, time loops have become a common movie device, for better or worse. That 1993 comedy employed the device so famously as to hijack the holiday after which it was named. When someone says “Groundhog Day,” the idea of reliving the same day over and over is as likely to spring to mind as the bizarre winter ritual in February. Happy Death Day trades comedy for horror, placing its sorority girl protagonist in her own birthday time loop. This movie isn’t, strictly speaking, good. It’s also not bad. There’s plenty to like and dislike, so the beauty, or lack thereof, is in the eye of the beholder. The movie is clumsy and gimmicky, but not without charm. Those resolved to have a bad time at this movie will do so. Anyone game for dumb thrills might have some fun.

This movie certainly offers some interesting departures from horror convention, like the effort in the first act to make your star likable. Happy Death Day wastes no time establishing Tree (Jessica Rothe) as despicably vapid. Also, Tree? The main character is named Tree, and we’re supposed to act like that’s a real name that actual human people have? I have a friend named Leaf, and he has to explain himself to everyone he meets. Maybe there’s a scene on the cutting room floor that explains that Tree’s mom loved nature, was in Greenpeace, or offered at some semblance of context for a very non-Hollywood name given to a oh-so-Hollywood character. But I digress. Instead of endearing Tree to the audience, thereby creating suspense when danger inevitably finds her, we start off despising the birthday girl, taking joy in her comeuppance. On a side note, the time loop has the added benefit of solving a problem facing modern horror movies — a plausible reason why cell phones can’t help.

Clunky dialogue and lapses in logic prevent smooth plot progression, to the extent that a time loop movie can move smoothly at all. This is a fork in the road for enjoying this movie or not. Dissecting the writing, or worse, expecting sound character choices in a movie like this only invites frustration. There’s humor, to be sure, and our Tree does grow, if you’ll forgive the pun. A sassy, second-act montage fueled by Demi Lovato sends a clear signal that this film is out to entertain, not enlighten or edify. It doesn’t seem particularly relevant that our protagonist is reliving her birthday, but so what? Groundhog Day held no special significance for that film either. It also doesn’t matter that the killer’s mask, the mascot for Tree’s fictitious university, inexplicably is a baby, or that some of the action is a little flat.

Comparing Groundhog Day to Happy Death Day is as inevitable as it is unfair. The former employed a plot device for clever exploration of what it might take to turn an awful person good; in the latter, the device is so sloppy it’s really a gimmick, one that fails to deliver a compelling reason for redemption. Audiences have lovingly overlooked plot holes in horror movies for decades — especially in the ‘80s when horror was long on charismatic killers and short on plot. Why not take that approach here? Director Chris Landon and writer Scott Lobdell recognize the debt owed to their predecessor, giving a nod and a wink to the movie that made their film possible. Give them credit for that at least. Sure, it’s a rip-off of Groundhog Day and they know it is. Not only that, they know you know it is.

Happy Death Day
  Director:  Christopher Landon
Studio:  Universal
Genre:  Horror Mystery Suspense
MPAA:  PG-13
Release Date:  October 13th, 2017
Author:  Jason M. Brown
Jason MBrown Seattle native Jason M. Brown traded liquid sunshine for the real thing when he recently moved to San Diego. Jason graduated from Washington State University with a Humanities degree focusing on English and has worked as a copywriter. An avid fan of comedy, horror, and almost any movie that started as a comic book, Jason lives in California, but still loves Seattle Seahawks football, apologies to the Chargers.

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