HAPPY DEATH DAY. A slasher Groundhog Day

“Happy Death Day” surprisingly lacks tension and bloodshed to impress horror fans.

Krzysztof Walecki

3 March 2024

happy death day

Before Tree dies for the first time, she manages to insult and step on the toes of so many people that finding the masked killer will prove almost impossible. The girl enjoys partying, especially when alcohol is involved, she flirts with her professor (as well as practically every other guy she meets), treats people like trash, and on her birthday, the last thing she wants to do is listen to her father’s wishes. Death shouldn’t come as a surprise to her, as someone must have finally had enough of her. It might be an exaggeration, but it’s really hard to like Tree at the beginning of the movie. So when she dies, killed by the masked baby-faced murderer, and then wakes up the same day, experiencing identical situations, we find satisfaction in such a turn of events. Anyone who has seen “Groundhog Day” knows where the plot is heading. The creators of “Happy Death Day” try to use a familiar and enduring scheme to tell fundamentally the same story – a cynical and corrupt person is punished by constantly reliving the same day until they discover what life is really about. 

Unlike that movie, here there’s room for a small slasher twist in the form of a madman who – no matter what Tree does – kills the girl day in and day out. Bill Murray didn’t need a murderer to be happy, but apparently, the world has moved on and even such a brilliant motif as a time loop needs to be spiced up with sensational, if not horror, clichés.

happy death day

Director Christopher Landon (mainly known for the sequels to Paranormal Activity) is more interested in a stylistic exercise at the intersection of genres, where thriller and science fiction go hand in hand with comedy, than in an attempt to make his film something like an entertaining morality play. References to other movies, classics of 1980s cinema, in the form of posters hanging on the wall in one of the characters’ rooms, prompt us to see where the inspiration came from, or how high the creator aims, but Landon lacks the insight of John Carpenter, the audacity of Alex Cox, and the verve of Robert Zemeckis. “Happy Death Day” surprisingly lacks tension and bloodshed to impress horror fans, it also lacks originality and madness necessary to be inscribed in cinema history as a cult work.

The screening passes painlessly, even successfully, as long as the main character’s day goes on and on, and she herself cannot understand how, who, and why. However, the whole thing is surprisingly enjoyable, partly because of the strength of the trapped-in-one-day scheme – we simply like watching different variations of the same situations and the changes that occur in the character and the surrounding reality. Here, our guide is Tree, played by Jessica Rothe, and it is a role that gives enough freshness and energy to want to watch the movie to the end. Her transformation is predictable, and even if not always convincing (mainly due to the script), we can believe in this character, her initial arrogance, and later signs indicating a change of character. The creators try too hard to justify their protagonist, looking for reasons for her annoying attitude, as if her struggle with a psychopath were not enough impetus for the necessary transformation. Fortunately, Rothe manages to buy the viewer’s favor for a long time, before the melodramatic memory of her mother overshadows the murderous game of cat and mouse with the masked lunatic.

happy death day

And one might think that the mystery behind the masked character would be more significant. Nothing of the sort. Neither his identity nor the motives driving him are among the most successful elements of the film, avoiding like the plague directness, extremes, and inventiveness. It is by no means bad cinema, but it tries very hard to forget itself immediately after leaving the screening. This one passes painlessly, even successfully, as long as Tree’s day goes on and on, and she herself cannot understand how, who, and why. We won’t know the answer to the most important question, the smaller ones will rather disappoint us, and the film itself will end somewhat differently, when the question about “Groundhog Day” finally comes up. I suspect that most viewers will think of that title before the main character herself realizes that she has a very long day ahead of her.