Michael and I decided to do a spontaneous Sunday night movie last week. Because of my urging, we ended up in the theater watching (of course) Happy Death Day, as opposed to Lego Ninjago or (another) viewing of Thor: Ragnarok – the two current most logical outcomes of letting Michael pick the movie. And while another viewing of Ragnarok or an initial viewing of Lego Ninjago wouldn’t have been completely insufferable, Happy Death Day turned out to be a really intriguing horror-movie going experience, if only because, well, it turned out to be a bit of an aberration. I was, I admit, underwhelmed by the previews of the cliché killer wearing a creepy mask and stalking a female college student. I didn’t think the film looked horrible, but it didn’t really look scary. And since the “re-live the same day over and over and over” trope is a horror off-shoot of Groundhog’s Day, I wasn’t expecting to be enamored (I mean, Groundhog’s Day is fantastic, but I didn’t think another film like it would work as well). And to be fair, I wasn’t enamored. But there were some surprising elements of the film that made it, well, entertaining to watch, and incredibly distinct from a lot of horror that’s currently out in theaters.
If you haven’t seen the film already (and admittedly, it’s been out for awhile now) – and if you haven’t seen the trailer fifteen times – here’s the plot overview: Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) plays a sort of caustic, self-centered sorority girl who gets killed on the eve of her birthday and – by virtue of some curse that remains unnamed and largely unexplained – is forced to live the same day over, and over, and over, and over again, until she can figure out how to unlock the maddening cycle that’s entrapped her. The day that she must re-live lands her, every morning, in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), with whom Tree eventually becomes acquainted. Once she convinces Carter that she’s not lying about her situation or lapsing into delusion, she enlists him to help her figure out how to disrupt the cycle she’s in. Tree must determine how to get from September 18th to September 19th, instead of just living the 18th repeatedly.
The strange thing about this film – strange, but not wholly bad – is that (and there will be some spoilers as I discuss it), about half-way through the film, I looked at Michael and said: “This is kind of cute.” And the word “cute” is an apt signifier for the film’s general tone throughout. I got a feeling that I don’t typically find myself getting in horror movies: I got a sort of warm fuzzy feeling as I was watching events unfold. This is odd, I thought. I feel very moved, and I’m not scared at all. Which is to say, as I emphasized, this is not a typical horror-going experience. But I also didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything; I wasn’t sitting around, hoping for specters and startles that weren’t present.
When I write typical, straightforward overviews and reactions to horror films, I like to address the characters. And I do this because sometimes characters in horror movies are down-right awful (Unfriended, The Gallows, some of the Paranormal Activity movies). Now, admittedly, Tree is a mildly unpleasant young woman when we meet her at the film’s start. But, because the film follows the sort of classic “reformed sinner” trope (think Groundhog’s Day, of course, and A Christmas Carol, and, as another shout-out to Bill Murry, the 90’s spoof on A Christmas Carol – Scrooged), she emerges, very triumphant, and very human. In the “reformed sinner” trope (I think I created that name), a really selfish, shallow misanthrope goes through a harrowing (supernatural) experience and emerges a “better person,” someone kinder, more likable, more amiable toward humanity and aware of how they treat others. And using that plot structure could have seemed hackneyed in the wrong hands, but it worked surprisingly well in this film. The main character, Tree, is likeable even when she’s not, and she becomes a not-so-surprising hero and proponent for the film’s underdogs. And when the film uses the reformation trope, I don’t think it tries too hard to be something it’s not; it very simply adapts themes and structures that have been used in previous stories and adds some good pathos through the characters actions and interactions. Part of the film’s strength, then, seems to lie in the fact that it doesn’t try too hard to be original, so it can’t fail. And if that sounds like a criticism, it’s not.
Because in some ways, the film is genuinely original. Of course, as mentioned (and this is common knowledge) Tree’s curse, living the same day over and over again, is a bit derivative of Groundhog’s Day, but the filmmakers do an interesting job situating Groundhog’s Day –or, its general premise – in a horror context. Perhaps because it adopts Groundhog’s Day’s central conflict – the inability to make it to “tomorrow” when one’s engulfed in a rapid, endless succession of “todays” – it kind of feels like a rom-com, one subtly woven with horror, as Tree meets her murderer every night and dies again and again. There are so many ways to shoot a death scene, and the death scenes in this film are creepy without being especially brutal or terrifying, highlighting the filmmaker’s attempt to downplay the grotesque in favor of the, well (I can’t believe I’m using this word to describe a movie produced by Blumhouse) – heartwarming. And again, I would argue that rather than be disappointed, rather than see this decision as a downfall, the emphasis on characterization and de-emphasis on gore is something I really liked about the film. Obviously I love horror, but so often, everything scary is really scary, and to enter the theater is to enter a really grim, hopeless or semi-hopeless space for an hour and a half or two hours. This film was kind of a fun, upbeat change.
Okay, and here’s my guilty admonition: I get really moved by sort of mushy, feel-good movies, and these movies that take a bitter, hostile hero or heroine and transform them into really kind, wonderful people – well, as cliché as it sounds, they inspire me. I like a movie that reminds me that I should try, every day, to live well, to remember that I’m not the center of the universe and to try to act accordingly. I really enjoy reflecting on my own life when I see films of positive personal transformation, and I always leave the theater feeling a little more energized, more inspired to move forward in life no matter what seems daunting or unfavorable in the future. And so it’s really fun, although odd, to be able to do that with a horror movie. But again, that’s why this movie was a pleasant change.
Don’t get me wrong: if Happy Death Day portended a genre shift away from the grotesque, the abject, the macabre – the irrevocably dismal or the indisputably disgusting – I would be incredibly troubled and sad. At the end of the day, I’ll always prefer horror films that are shocking or sinister. But I found that I was able to easily adjust my expectations for this movie and actually enjoy a departure from the horror norms of carnage and mayhem. And I would imagine I’m not the only one who’s had this reaction. Indeed, those who are new to the genre might want to start with a film like this one. Happy Death Day is more story than scare, as much rom-com as horror, and it’s a non-threatening way to ease into the horror genre. And that may not be the blurb the filmmakers were going for, but there it is. It’s a benign film, for a horror movie, but it’s an engaging, refreshing story nonetheless.