Given horror’s box-office dominance in 2017 (It, Get Out and Split remain three of the year’s biggest hits), it seems only right that the slasher movie receives the resurrection it deserves. But one of the many reasons it died again after Scream brought it back to life was a reluctance from audiences to feel terrified by the relative simplicity of a man bearing a knife. Why get scared over another rubber mask, when there are evil dolls, demons, clowns, poltergeists and zombies instead?
In an attempt to elevate a familiar structure, eager new comedy horror Happy Death Day takes the classic slasher formula and adds a nifty twist. Theresa, known as Tree (Jessica Rothe), is waking up in a bad place: a dorm room, to be exact. She’s not quite sure how she got there, but a hangover and someone called Carter (Israel Broussard) are all the clues she needs. Even worse, it’s her birthday, an occasion she loathes, and the ensuing 24 hours provide her with social embarrassment, romantic entanglements, sorority sister drama and, well, her death. But then Tree wakes up, stuck in the same day, unable to break the cycle until she finds out who wants her dead.
It’s Groundhog Day meets Scream, although lacking the first film’s novelty and the latter’s postmodern smarts. There’s a slick, brightly lit peppiness that makes it a mostly easy watch, and the heightened performances (sassy bitch, dumb jock, geeky nerd) clue us into the fact that this is targeted at a younger teen audience. It feels aimed at a sleepover crowd, the scares never truly landing and, despite the many, many deaths, the gore almost entirely absent.
And here’s where a key problem lies. We’re made aware of the format early on, so Tree’s repetitious deaths have very little impact as we know that soon after she’ll be up again to endure the same. (A late-in-the-day attempt to suggest that each death had a physical toll is poorly explained). It drains much of the suspense from each differently staged murder, something Final Destination managed so well, and this would be at least partly recovered if we were made to feel that Tree’s endings were horribly painful, but in securing a lower rating, the film is almost entirely gore-free. It’s a strange, regressive decision, especially given that it’s the product of Blumhouse, the phenomenally successful production company that’s scored major R-rated successes with Get Out, the Purge franchise and the Paranormal Activity series.
In the slasher movie canon, there’s something naive and likable about how it seems to exist in a pre-Scream universe, before we were all made aware of the cliches that dominate the subgenre. There’s plenty of walking down dark tunnels, asking “Who’s there?” and general behavior that would have most horror fans eye-rolling. For a while this proves entertaining in a silly 80s throwback way, but in the final stretch this simplicity becomes distracting, with a poorly constructed ending featuring one of the most staggeringly stupid motivations for a killer ever written.
Rothe keeps it mostly watchable with a well-pitched comic performance, and until she’s slut-shamed near the end there’s something interesting about a female slasher movie lead who’s so sexually uninhibited. There are some fun, bitchy one-liners but the script feels underworked, with some especially heinous dialogue (“Will you please stop staring at me like I just took a dump on your mom’s head?”), some nonsensical plotting (Tree hates her birthday and wants no one to know yet has changed her ringtone to a birthday song) and a handful of emotional beats that have zero impact.
The slasher movie remains dead and buried. For now.
- Happy Death Day is in US cinemas on 13 October and in the UK on 20 October