It would be overly cynical to say that I’m never surprised, or pleasantly surprised by movies anymore. It happens fairly often that a movie I think is going to be mediocre or bad ends up being good. It’s much more rare that a movie that I’m actively rolling my eyes at while the trailer is rolling becomes a complete delight. Happy Death Day looked like a poorly conceived attempt at rehashing old ideas. Instead it’s a fun, playful, horror movie that hits all the right notes and does a mostly good job exploring their concept.
Happy Death Day is exactly the movie you think it is. It’s Groundhog Day but a slasher movie instead of a Bill Murray comedy. A college student (Jessica Routhe) is murdered on her birthday and keeps reliving the day until she can get through it without dying. There’s a bit of mystery, a bit of comedy, a bunch of becoming a better person and we’re all back in the lobby before the 100 minute mark. The mystery isn’t particularly difficult (I had identified the culprit in less than 15 minutes) and nothing in the movie is particularly unique or groundbreaking, but everything chugs along nicely. There are plenty of scares (jump and non) and there’s a persistent sense of tension once the general aura of menace is established.
It’s strange to have a slasher movie where only one person ever gets killed. On one hand you can always be on the edge of your seat because you always know who is going to be attacked next and that character is always on screen. On the other hand, you know that if the killer succeeds the movie resets and there are no lasting consequences. They try to introduce some lasting stakes about an hour in with Theresa getting weaker each time she resets but that never feels like a real threat or a particularly persistent one as in one reset she is confined to a bed and a few resets later she’s enacting an action movie plan for revenge.
The problems with the movie are ones of over-plotting and low budget. The movie feels the need to chase down so many red herrings that not only go nowhere but aren’t that amusing. There’s a fun montage of failed suspects but anything that takes longer than a couple minutes ends up feeling a touch long. The supporting cast is perilously thin and all of the suspected motives are kind of ridiculous so it drags a bunch. There’s a particular theory of the crime that takes up a huge chunk of the second act that, had it been the true solution, would have been so far out of left field it’s impossible for it to be right just on the basis of not passing dozens of angry patrons on my way in to the building. This is a Blumhouse film so it was made on a shoestring budget, and it’s only obvious with the fight choreography when nothing looks like it actually hurts. It’s a little thing but what if, when they knew one of their movies was going to get a big weekend theatrical release, they juiced the budget a little bit so the climax didn’t look like a student film?
There are a lot of bad things to be said about the Blumhouse model of movie making. That it creates a race to the bottom, that a successful formula can be driven in to the ground at an amazing pace, that things can feel more like a product than a work of art. This year has shown the way that model can work very well. Happy Death Day is a movie that wouldn’t get made without this scattershot model. It’s not that strong of a concept, it isn’t a good pitch or a poster but it turned out to be a good movie. The lower bar let them jump that much higher. It’s honestly the same way Get Out wouldn’t have gotten made because a more traditional studio wouldn’t have trusted a new director nor would they have wanted to make a movie like that about race. Happy Death Day is a half-clever idea executed all the way perfectly and it makes for a great movie, the early favorite for best horror movie of the fall season. Don’t make a sequel though, the sequel will be a horrible train wreck; this is the money you get from this idea.