Happy Death Day is a cynical, stupid-fun 13 Going on 30, but with murder

This fall, The Verge is making a choice. The choice is fear! We’ve decided to embrace the season by taking in as many new horror movies as possible and reporting back on which ones are worth your time. We’re calling this series Hold My Hand, as we look at films you might want to watch with a supportive viewing partner. Get comfortable, put the kettle on, check the closet for ghosts, then find a hand to squeeze until the bones pop.

What do you want from a horror movie? Is it horror? Genuine horror? If so, I don’t know, just look at the world around you instead. Because today, we’re here to discuss a horror movie that’s secretly about joy.

Happy Death Day is the latest Blumhouse production, directed by Christopher B. Landon (best known for the later Paranormal Activity movies, but his debut was 2007’s incredible Disturbia), and written by Scott Lobdell (a Marvel Comics staff writer). Jessica Rothe (one of the charming and generous gal pals from La La Land!) plays Tree — short for Theresa, I assume and hope — a beautiful, rude sorority girl who keeps dying on her birthday. The bulk of the movie is Tree living the same day over and over, storming out of the dorm room of a doofy stranger named Carter (The Bling Ring’s Israel Broussard), rejecting a red velvet cupcake from her roommate (Shameless’ Ruby Modine), ignoring a birthday phone call from her dad, laughing along with her cruel sorority sisters at lunch, then watching a little bit of Teen Mom before heading off to her surprise party. At 9:30PM, without fail, she’s murdered by an undodgeable hooded weirdo in a baby mask.

The birthday-cake-leaking-blood posters for Happy Death Day have been ubiquitous in New York for months, making me feel a weird combination of “hungry for cake” and “eager to see a movie about cake,” but also “embarrassed, because I don’t think I’m supposed to find a blood cake appealing in this way.” This marketing campaign proved itself appropriate, as the corresponding film does involve cake, and I was almost embarrassed by how much I loved it.

Is it scary?

It’s hard to be too scared by a PG-13 horror movie with a heroine so charming, you know she’ll survive. But knowing you’re going to see her abruptly die at least half a dozen different unpredictable ways first does provoke a sick kind of dread. One particular death (not Tree’s) crushed my fluttery little heart like it was a kitten hiding in the wheel-well of my mom’s minivan.

I recommend bringing a comforting snack to this film, but not cake. I ate pretzel M&Ms, for example, and that was a good choice.

Will I care about the characters?

Yes! Jessica Rothe should be in the next crop of regular teen-movie heroines, and should get very rich. Her comedic timing is disarming, and she’s at least as expressive and elastic as Easy A-era Emma Stone. Though Tree is supposed to be an unbearable jerk, I loved her within about 14 minutes.

The structural conceit of Happy Death Day is obviously borrowed from Groundhog Day — which gets a hat tip in the movie’s final scene — but it actually has a lot more in common with the 2004 Jennifer Garner gem 13 Going on 30. In that film, Garner’s character is stuck in a time-warp until she figures out how to be less shallow, mean, and self-centered. Like Tree, she responds to her displacement by hatching weird plans, finding comedy in her absurd situation, and flopping around like her limbs are made of Silly Putty. Happy Death Day is actually a more generous film, though, in that it gives Tree a full backstory and a secret, horrible grief that explains how she became the insufferable person she is at the start of the film.

There’s even one diner scene that I’m pretty sure is a direct callback to Garner’s “I’m not a good person” speech in 2004, and it’s moving enough to make me tear up in the middle of a campy teen horror-comedy made on such a shoestring budget, you can almost always see patches of cover-up on the actors’ chins.

happy death day happy death day Image: Universal Pictures

Is it visually impressive?

No, but who cares? Neither was Bring It On.

What’s lurking beneath the surface?

Well, honestly not much. This is a silly, weird movie in which you hear the recurring punchline “Nice one, dickhead,” no less than eight times. There’s maybe, maybe something to be said about how often the young women in this movie play into the hammy misogyny of their college environment by calling each other sluts, whores, and dumb bitches, but I’d rather take it at face value, as a sleepover movie with a few overly cynical jokes and a buoyant breakout performance from a compelling lead.

Sadly, Happy Death Day may not have the same sleepover staying power as 13 Going on 30. Where Jennifer Garner’s character got a triumphant come-up sequence set to “Thriller,” a swoony love montage paired with Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I?,” and an emotional climax that I still think about once a week, involving Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” Tree’s biggest moment is set to all three and a half minutes of Demi Lovato’s deeply obnoxious “Confident.” No disrespect to Demi, who has made more hits than I’ve eaten pieces of cake, but this song — especially in the context of a movie for teens — has the general effect of being slapped across the mouth with a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” mug. Give me some credit: I believe this girl is powerful, I’ve already seen her bounce back from five murders!

Oh well. What’s lurking beneath the surface of this ruthlessly violent horror movie is a glimmer of gold. Happy Death Day is fun enough to be worth watching. It has a wildly dumb twist made forgivable by a punchline about Crocs. It deploys some wonky narrative tricks that expose a debt to A Nightmare on Elm Street, and it barely mentions Bill Murray.

happy death dayhappy death dayImage: Universal Pictures

How can I watch it?

Happy Death Day opens in wide release on October 13th. (It’s a Friday. Spooky!)

Is it a hand-holding movie?

Sure, why not? Please take a nice acquaintance with clean-looking fingernails to the movies with you and see if some hand-holding happens organically. If it doesn’t, just try again the next day with someone else. And again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. I do not want to spoil how many tries it will take you to find happiness, but you are going to be in that theater for a while. It’s fine. You’ll have fun.

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