Watching Happy Death Day, you can almost hear the pitch that probably sold the film to the studio: “It’s like Groundhog Day meets Scream!” College student Tree Gelbman is our protagonist, living the same day over and over again—a day that begins with her waking up in the dorm room of an underclassmen whose name she doesn’t know, and ends with her getting stabbed to death by a masked assailant. Every time she dies, she’s sent back to that dorm room to do it all over again. Oh, and it’s also her birthday.
That’s a pretty damn good horror premise, but those seeking scares should look elsewhere. The film is PG-13, and a pretty tame PG-13 at that, with little in the way of blood and gore in spite of the multiple stabbings. Nor is the film particularly artful at plucking feelings of unease from its audience, and a cartoony score steps on moments that could have been a little creepy with more silence. The few legitimate scares the film manages to elicit come via the shallowest and most reliable horror movie method: jump scares. These things are subjective, of course, but the screening I attended (comprised significantly of teens, surely the film’s target demographic) was deathly silent during the scenes of peril, with none of the audience sounds that signal an effective horror film.
What I did hear plenty of was laughter. Happy Death Day is not a very scary movie, but it is, occasionally, a funny one. I used the word cartoony to describe the music; the term can also be applied to the movie as a whole, from its intentionally broad characterizations to its outlandish situations and cartoon physics. When Tree kicks a chair across the room, it just so happens to lodge perfectly under the knob; when she uses one of her days to spy on a suspect for her murder, she dons Army commando gear and blackens her face to escape notice. Even the killer’s mask is a joke: a chubby-cheeked baby face that’s almost scary until you remember that it’s the mascot of Tree’s school, the Baymont University Babies.
The film is also, in its later stretch, something of a romcom—and a thematically gross one at that. A frequent and problematic undertone of the romcom genre is its tendency to punish female characters, humbling them until they are fit for the affections of the romantic male lead. Happy Death Day clearly fits the template. Our first introduction to Tree in the room of a freshman whose name she can’t remember is clearly designed to make us think she’s slutty, shallow, and mean; whereas Carter, the guy she wakes up with, is established as a Good Guy by the fact that he didn’t have sex with her, only brought her home to sleep off a wild night. Tree’s subsequent murders are intended to punish her for being a bad person, to bring her to the point where she can finally see that nerdy, awkward Carter is the guy she’s meant to be with—and if you think I’m overreacting, all of this is stated more or less explicitly in the film.
Is the film bad? I suppose that depends on what you mean. Jessica Rothe is charming as Tree (who’s not nearly as bad of a person as the film wants us to think she is), the laughs are real and earned, and the murder-mystery plot is ridiculous but perfectly constructed. Happy Death Day is not the horror film that many filmgoers will expect, but it is exactly the film it wants to be: a horror-comedy-romcom that’s moderately entertaining and instantly forgettable.