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Categories: Movie Reviews

Like the concept of perpetual hell, Happy Death Day bludgeons its audience with cliches and ham-fisted writing before starting the torture all over again.

As anyone who’s ever counted themselves as a horror fan will be able to tell you, it’s an exasperating genre. Its highs are incomparable but the vast majority of its experimentation ends in miserable failure; the problem being that the highs don’t just carry you through the lows, they addict you to something which is mostly just awful. Watered down, recycled, brain cell killing trash that teases fun but simply pacifies you.

Happy Death Day is a film that feeds into far wider and more worrying issues than just horror, however. To begin with, it’s not really a horror film despite what its premise and marketing suggest. Neither is it a horror-comedy, a legitimate subgenre, not just because it isn’t frightening or funny but because that’s never what the film is trying to be.

You may have heard about Happy Death Day in relation to its box office takings. It’s one of the many success stories from Jason Blum’s low-budget production model, which usually churns out horror films, and it was the film that dethroned Denis Villeneuve’s highly-praised Blade Runner 2049 from the top of the US box office. A sad but entirely predictable event.

Happy Death Day is, in essence, a teen flick: a film designed to target one specific demographic and nothing else, except this demographic has the holy grail of disposable cash to throw at weekend box office (where Hollywood films make most of their money).

Teens enjoy films mostly as a form of social interaction as opposed to entertainment or creative stimulation which means that, in filmmaking terms, you can get away with a lot of lazy shit that doesn’t make any goddamn sense and your audience will either be too disinterested or dumb to even notice it. Happy Death Day is not an intelligent film or an original film. It survives by being what all films made by people who view cinema less as self-expression and more as a tool are: incredibly manipulative. Something which would not be so bad if it wasn’t being used to cover up how unbelievably awful the screenwriting and direction are.

The idea of time distortion, or travel, is appealing to writers for one of two reasons, which feed into the previous point: either the writer views it as a challenge that will force them to look at their own story more objectively (it’s virtually impossible to write time travel that doesn’t create unsolvable paradoxes) or they’ll view it as a cheap gimmick that you use to hook people in.

The idea itself, of reliving the same day over and over again, has fascinated storytellers since ancient mythology and it has sadly resulted in a contemporary Hollywood mini-craze called Groundhog Day-ing (the term specifically referring to the much beloved 1993 Bill Murray/Harold Ramis comedy Groundhog Day which has given birth the modern era of perpetual purgatory films in which the protagonist relives the same day for no reason that makes any sense, attempting to escape their situation and succumbing to it in a humorous series of vignettes which ultimately force them to examine their own life and change for the better) and the fact that the film has the gall to mention Groundhog Day by name is demonstrative of its woeful lack of imagination.

Teenagers are fascinating subjects themselves because of their inherent state of contradiction, they are defined by their polarising desire to be original and independent while being obsessed with the world constructed by their parents. Teens very often consume music and movies that were popular in their parents’ youth which is why almost everything Hollywood makes these days has a Classic Hits mixtape for a soundtrack while Star Wars and Stranger Things rule the screens. Teens find it edgily retro while their parents, who will be the source of the disposable income going to the ticket(s), find it to be comfortingly familiar. Which is why when the film admits that that’s what it’s doing it just makes it all the more infuriating. There’s a reason why John Hughes showed up in your Spider-Man film and it has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with blinding you to the film’s obvious faults.

While we’re on the subject of John Hughes, it seems pertinent to bring up what makes Happy Death Day totally unbearable: its screenplay.

John Hughes, who doesn’t just rear his head in Happy Death Day but headbutts the audience in the face when the film painfully reconstructs the end of Sixteen Candles (at least they didn’t go the whole nine yards and then show you the actual clip from the film like Spider-Man: Homecoming did), is, despite his charm, what the kids today like to call “problematic”.

His films were obsessed with American upper-middle-class whiteness, a viewpoint made all the more disturbing by his inability to see beyond the white, affluent, suburbs of the infamously inequitable streets of Chicago. Similarly, Happy Death Day, which revolves around a sorority it-girl on an unnamed ivy-league-looking university campus in which people of colour are never anything more than a prop, creates a host of characters who could only exist in a Hollywood film because real life is never as dumb or as pointless as a Hollywood film can be.

The screenplay was written by comic book writer Scott Lobdell, which makes a tremendous amount of sense when you factor in that Hollywood is only making things based on comic books or TV shows now and that everyone in Happy Death Day is a cartoon.

Each character is only capable of feeling and expressing one emotion at a time, a great convenience when performances that display actual, relatable, emotion require writing and direction of a high standard. Which is where the film’s director, writer of all of the sequels to another Jason Blum less-of-a-film-more-of-a-fraud-scheme franchise Paranormal Activity Christopher Landon, steps in.

Happy Death Day is filled with moments of utter nonsense that, if not better outlined in the screenplay, should have been caught by, at very least, the director during, at very least, the storyboarding phase.

There is a scene in which the killer stabs the protagonist, a blocked door to her right, head-on and the next shot is of the knife going through the door. The protagonist’s daily, repeating, routine contains no variation whatsoever. Actions, reactions and events occur in an exact sequence no matter how long the preceding events take in each of her run-throughs and, though I can provide no evidence for this at this stage as the film is still only in theatres, I swear to god there’s a point where the protagonist says “escape goat” rather than “scapegoat” and it’s not a joke.

Though there is plenty to laugh at in Happy Death Day, none of it is intentional. Much in the same way that the film is steeped in irony, just not the irony it intends. Once all of the many, many, equally pointless red herrings have melted away and you’re left with the final boss of the movie, so to speak, you’re shown the murderer’s motivation and I’m sure in the minds of some of its audience, and its screenwriter, it was a clever dig at the concept of “internalised misogyny” but the film is ironically blind to its own, very apparent, misogyny.

This is in reference to the protagonist of the film and how terrible she is. Jessica Rothe’s big league debut as “Tree Gelbman” is yet another of Hollywood’s riffs on The Scream Queen and the film’s viewpoint on what makes someone a good or bad person is particularly revealing.

Ever since Wes Craven’s Scream laid the slasher genre to rest for anyone who had a shred of integrity, Hollywood has been trying to jump start its corpse back to life with revisionism, reinterpretation and remake after remake after remake. Tree is a Joss Whedon-esque stab at well-intentioned feminism delivered by someone who is suspiciously trying far too hard at something that should just come naturally. Lobdell’s inclination towards animated exaggeration at all times means that the moral centre of the film has the same tone and substance as a primary school play about bullying. It frequently stops itself to turn to the camera and shout a popular cultural catchphrase right in your face. There are several points in the film, for example, where the concept of rape is delivered for laughs. The film wholeheartedly believes that, because the punchline of the humour is meant to be directed at “rape culture” itself, this makes them “the good kind of rape jokes”. You know, because they make you think and stuff.

Tree’s modern amalgam of valley girl, wild child and spoiled brat is painted as The Worst Thing Ever, which it would be if it wasn’t for her transformation into someone even worse.

The thing about intentionally writing annoying, unlikable, characters is that it’s easy. It doesn’t require skill to get on someone’s nerves, which only serves to compound the effect. That’s why small children and Donald Trump do it so much. A point which becomes apparent during Tree’s transforming character arc from an obnoxious, self-centred, dick into an obnoxious, self righteous, bully who tells people what their sexuality is before beaming “love is love” and bouncing away whilst believing in the reformed virtue of only dating “nice boys”. It bears mentioning that the male lead’s defining, heroic, characteristic in this film is that he does not seize an opportunity to rape the main character.

To come back to the accusation that this film’s story is similar to a school play written by the kids themselves, cinematically speaking Happy Death Day is most comparable to what is commonly called a Pure Flix film. Pure Flix is a production company spearheaded by David A.R White which creates and distributes “faith based” (Conservative American Christian) films. Their basic use of entertainment industry gimmickry and structure being used as a vehicle for message-heavy films that some find akin to propaganda.

Happy Death Day would be like this, the lack of ingenuity or skill in basic cinematography or characterisation being indicative of the style, but ultimately there’s no real point to it. The film is a series of contrivances draped in the decaying flesh of much better ideas. It is unequivocally not something that audiences should be encouraging if they feel that nothing original is being produced anymore and they’d like that to change.

Happy Death Day is out now in cinemas.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, film-blogger and lifelong cinephile who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University Of London.

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Posted on Nov 3, 2017

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