‘Happy Death Day’ is appealingly self-aware

Audiences have seen this movie before — and writer Scott Lobdell knows it

Happy_Death_Day_poster- universal pictures

Horror film "Happy Death Day" is surprisingly and pleasantly self-aware, making for an entertaining time.

Courtesy Universal Pictures

Director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell know audiences have seen “Happy Death Day” before. The initial premise inspires most viewers to assume, ‘oh, so it’s “Groundhog Day” crossed with “Scream?”’ Ultimately, “Happy Death Day” appears to be an homage to a growing trend of films that bank on the popularity of metacinema — think “Deadpool,” but more subtle. 

For instance, the spinning Universal logo repeats itself before the opening credits, letting audiences know Landon and Lobdell are “in on it.” This horror-comedy is nothing new, but nonetheless clever enough to be enjoyable, especially for younger audiences, as the PG-13 rating suggests.  

Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is Bill Murray from “Groundhog Day” reincarnated as a college-aged “Mean Girl” who wakes up on Monday the 18th — her birthday — in the dorm room of classmate Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) after a drunken night out. She walks back to her sorority house — of course — acting condescending, egotistical and scornful to the college stereotypes around her. That night, Tree is murdered by a mystery figure wearing a dirty mask of the University’s mascot — a baby. The next morning, she wakes up in Carter’s dorm room and repeats the gory day over and over again, trying to discover the killer’s identity. 

It is notable that Landon has written, produced and directed for the “Paranormal Activity” movies and Lobdell is an acclaimed comic book writer. The duo’s talent in specific genres is evident in the writing of “Happy Death Day.” Scenes are tense enough for genuine horror-lovers, albeit campy enough to imagine finding them on the Disney Channel. Tree, Carter and everyone else appear to be stock characters audiences recognize — the contemptible sorority girl, the nice-guy love interest and the hot, married professor who is okay with having an affair with one of his students so they can “coast by” in his class. 

Audiences have seen it already. 

With this in mind, Lobdell’s attempts to mold more compelling characters out of stereotypes should not go unnoticed, but they are ultimately shallow, unconvincing and inconsistent with the film’s aim of being fun — which is decidedly achieved. The horror-comedy blend is certainly not ordinary but the tropes of both are easily recognizable and evident by the masked knifeman and stock characters. 

Still, the mixture gives opportunity to poke fun at the cliché gore and shenanigans of both genres. In a predictable montage of Tree’s repeat days, for instance, the audience sees Tree creatively wake up in a way related to her most recent death. Hearing audiences laugh whole-heartedly as someone is stabbed to death is reminiscent of “Scary Movie” — a remarkable plot feat, in some respects.  

In time, the audience learns why Tree is so dismissive of others’ feelings, but the reason is a cheap attempt at sympathy, as it is disappointingly disconnected from the problems the audience wonders about. Although the attempts at sympathy for Tree might make audiences roll their eyes at first, the character is expertly played by Rothe, the most praiseworthy aspect of this film. 

Rothe’s performance single-handedly makes the movie a worthwhile watch. The writing is nothing special, but her performance as she rectifies her character flaws, “falls in love” and is chased down by a masked murderer shows that the actress truly gave it her all.

Although audiences have seen slashers and “Groundhog Day” already, they may still be surprised by the twists Lobdell offers as he combines the two concepts. As the highest grossing movie of last weekend, it is hard to say if the success of this film at the box office merely represents another Blumhouse Productions horror hit, or a tendency of modern audiences to like films that are self-aware. Still, “Happy Death Day” accomplished what it appears to have set out to do — make audiences laugh while serving up gratuitous death and perhaps impart a shallow moral or two.  

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