The female co-ed is a horror staple, typically employed to be bitchy, bare her breasts, then die horribly. Often, we’re meant to relish in her demise, because she’s cruel, or dumb, or just promiscuous. Thanks to the modern wave of subversive horror like Cabin In The Woods and It Follows, the trope of the sexy co-ed being a clueless mean girl has been subverted, to the point where it’s actually on the verge of finally dying off. Then comes Happy Death Day, a horror comedy that tries–and fails — to have its cupcake and eat it too.
Comic book writer Scott Lobdell penned the original screenplay, which follows Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) on the last day of her life. On her birthday, the sneering party girl wakes up in a rando’s dorm room, draws notice as her smudged mascara and club look scream “walk of shame” in the morning sun, then goes about berating, ignoring or otherwise wounding every single person with which she comes in contact. She blows off a boy who seems to be crushing on her, ignores repeated calls from her father, and even pitches the birthday cupcake her roommate made for her because carbs are not for Kappas. (Of course, she’s a sorority girl.) Tree’s comeuppance comes that night, when she’s slaughtered by a mysterious figure wearing a baby mask.
Much to her surprise, Tree’s not dead yet, as she wakes up back in that damned dorm room. Fated to live this deadly birthday again and again, she seeks to uncover her killer, and along the way realizes she’s a pretty horrible person. Basically, the premise is Edge of Tomorrow meets The Good Place, except the film’s execution makes it nowhere near as satisfying or fun as either.
The first act — or Tree’s first run through the day — is played as a straight-faced co-ed horror setup. With every glare or frown from a passerby, there’s a potential suspect. But the actual solving of the mystery is scuttled by a montage of her dying that’s bizarrely played for laughs. Look, Edge of Tomorrow managed it. But here, the tonal switch to comedy feels out of nowhere, so it’s jarring and tasteless that we shift from intense investigation of who wants the birthday girl dead to cartoonish kills where she’s stabbed, drowned and hit by a bus.
Through a brewing romance with her one-night stand Carter (Israel Broussard), Tree begins to care about something beyond herself and grow as a person. By extension, we’re meant to start to like her. Lodbell’s script even includes an even meaner co-ed, as if to say, “Tree’s not so bad, because look at this asshole!”
But it’s too little too late, so instead audiences are left in a limbo where we’re not rooting for the cruel co-ed to be killed, but we don’t exactly care if she lives, either. She’s not so much a character as a collision of conveniences for a poorly thought out plot that refuses to make sense as often as it reboots the day. After not-so-carefully considering who in her circle of friends might be dedicated to her death, Tree briefly–and for no good reason–decides it’s a serial killer out to get her, derailing any kind of logical plot so that the film can crassly loop in a creepy-looking baddie for a bit. It’s a ploy that stinks as a red herring because it comes out of nowhere, and ignores just about every clue up to that point. But hey, the final reveal of the real killer isn’t much better.
Groundhog’s Day but about a co-ed trying to solve her own murder sounded like a darkly good time. Regrettably, Lobdell’s horror-comedy isn’t scary or funny, boasting jump scares and jokes that might have felt fresh twenty years ago. Happy Death Day is cluttered with messy misdirects, haphazard kill scenes, and utter nonsense. And that’s all a shame, because when Rothe is actually given a chance to smile, smirk and be more than the screaming girl or the sorority bitch, she’s easily affable and a compelling could-be final girl. But Lobdell’s script won’t let her rise above a hackneyed premise that mercilessly mocks Tree while half-heartedly making her the hero. Sure, she’s the protagonist. But scenes where she’s watching Teen Mom 2, scoffing at a girl for eating breakfast, and brazenly admitting that she doesn’t know what Groundhog’s Day, Ghostbusters or Bill Murray is, all suggest she’s still just a dumb bimbo worthy of scorn. Despite being out of fashion and offensive, it’s apparently tired trope more tricky to escape that a time loop. And it means Happy Death Day is as mean as it is stupid.
Happy Death Day opens Friday.