With its premiere Friday, Oct. 13, “Happy Death Day” has branded itself as one of the scariest films of the fall. Created by Blumhouse Productions, the company behind films such as “Get Out,” “Sinister” and “Whiplash,” “Happy Death Day” combines tropes of the horror film genre with comedic scenes to create a viewing experience that is highly entertaining, but ultimately, underdeveloped.
The premise of the film is simple: Tree Gelbman, played by Jessica Rothe, is fated to live her death over again each day, in the vein of the iconic 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day.” Tree is a self-centered young woman who lives in a sorority house filled with fellow sisters, who, like her, are portrayed as petty and superficial. After enduring several versions of her murder, Tree attempts to unmask the culprit behind her death. Along the way, she begins to see the flaws within her character and attempts to make amends. This character arc can quickly become predictable; despite that, the film manages to keep audiences entertained.
“Happy Death Day” was directed by Christopher B. Landon, who is best known for his work on the “Paranormal Activity” films and “Disturbia.” “Happy Death Day” diverges from Landon’s earlier work and attempts to take itself a little less seriously. While “Disturbia” represents a true horror thriller film drawing from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” “Happy Death Day” includes comedic scenes that establish the film’s more lighthearted tone.
At times, the comedy and horror in “Happy Death Day” harmonize into a stronger whole than the film’s individual parts. Other times, they seem discordant and can make the viewer forget that the film is intended to be frightening. Jump scares — rather than artful suspense or dramatic tension — saturate the film.
A shining example of the blend between the comedic and horrific occurs in the second act of the film. As Tree becomes familiar with the events leading to her death, she grows increasingly confident. Her sarcastic behavior results in oddly comedic montages of Tree manipulating herself and the environment around her in anticipation of known events. Although it is clearly horrifying to imagine a scenario in which a person is fated to repeat the same day over again, the humor Tree temporarily finds in the situation manages to give the audience a few laughs.
Conversely, other attempts at mixing comedy and horror are lackluster and fall flat due to their awkward placement and timing. Instead of poking fun at the abundant horror tropes in the film, Landon chooses to insert unimaginative one-liners and misplaces slapstick comedy in moments that should have employed suspense.
The biggest problem with “Happy Death Day,” however, is that it lacks crucial character depth. The heavily exaggerated depiction of sorority life, stereotypical female archetypes and the use of a geeky nice guy detract from the believability of an already unrealistic film — frankly, it often comes off as lazy writing.
Cinematically, the film does not exceed expectations, but it provides audiences with an enjoyable viewing experience nonetheless. Most shots are very standard with effective framing. In action scenes, the camera shots are tight, easy to follow and entertaining. There is truly a rhythm to the film that comes alive the second the action starts.
The most visually entertaining scenes take place when Tree faces her murder. Eye-catching and elaborate close-up shots and jarring transitions punctuate her violent returns to the beginning of the day. These scenes effectively communicate the suddenness with which Tree experiences her death, as if waking from a nightmare.
The best part of this film is Rothe in her role as Tree. In a clearly physically demanding role, Rothe outperforms expectations. Tree, while not a very developed character, is a highly emotional one. Rothe is superb in her emoting and manages to come across as realistic and relatable without exaggerating her role. Despite the first portion of the film showing her petty and rude actions, Rothe manages to make the character somewhat likeable by the end of the film.
“Happy Death Day” by no means breaks the conventions of the horror genre. However, it excels at entertaining the audience and establishes itself as the quintessential blockbuster horror of the season. The film is certainly predictable, but for some viewers, it may be the perfect film to deliver both frights and laughs.