As promised in its (brilliant) advertising, Happy Death Day‘s defining gimmick is dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher. What the ads don’t convey, however, is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that invaded the horror genre in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s general atmosphere of a late 90s slasher relic extends beyond its shithead college students’ slut-shaming, carb-counting, disability/rape/queer sexuality-mocking ways to inform even its basic approach to horror. Its depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize. Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos. It surprisingly owes just as much to big budget, post-Scream slashers (and maybe even their Scary Movie spoofs) for its tonal DNA as it does to the timeline loop plot of Groundhog Day.
Not only does the sorority girl victim at the film’s center have to relive the day of her murder on an endless loop, she begins that day hungover & stumbling home from a drunken hookup’s dorm room. Much like Bill Murray’s bitter anti-hero in Groundhog Day, she’s a mean, selfish brat with an ever-growing list of enemies she pettily steps over as a sorority bully caricature. Her ethical shortcomings both set up a plot progression where she incrementally becomes a better person throughout the film and allow for a long list of potential suspects who might want her dead. Is the killer one of her socially-slighted sorority sisters? One of her ghosted sexual partners or their girlfriends/wives? The father whose phone calls she continually ignores in each loop? A total stranger? Unraveling the paranormal mystery of who repeatedly murders this deeply flawed, but gradually improving sorority monster on her birthday is obviously a significant part of what makes the movie a dumb, fun time. Happy Death Day eventually adds accumulative stakes to its resettable scenario, but for the most part the protagonist enjoys a kind of supernatural privilege in her time loop immortality that allows her to treat her own life as a kind of consequence-free playground. Of course, it’s a repeatedly deadly playground that cyclically concludes with a violent murder by the hands of a masked killer, but it’s ultimately all in good fun.
Like with most dumb fun slashers, the ideal audience for Happy Death Day might be dark-humored teens just slightly younger than the college campus caricatures that populate the film. As with his bro-minded horror comedy Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, director Christopher B. Landon has the sensibilities of a teenage boy who just watched Army of Darkness for the first time. As an adult, Happy Death Day‘s mean teen humor can sometimes land a little awkwardly, as can its romantic subplot about a sorority hottie becoming a “better” person by falling in love with a horror nerd with They Live! & Repo Man posters on his dorm room wall instead of the meathead bozos she usually bangs (not to mention the way it congratulates him for not raping her after a night of hard-drinking, the bare minimum of human decency). That mentality feels especially gross right now, given current conversations about the gender politics shortcomings of genre film nerd culture institutions like Ain’t It Cool News, Fantastic Fest, and Alamo Drafthouse. A softer, less discerning teen mind searching only for a fun gimmick & memorable kills is a lot less likely to get hung up on those details. The film’s college campus setting & campus life caricatures play directly to that demographic as well, especially when they include images like frat paddles, school mascots, bongs, and sorority houses in their kill scenes. You even get the sense that an earlier draft of the script might have been titled Monday the 18th (the date that endlessly repeats) as a nod to its direct, Jason Voorhees-style appeal to teenage audiences.
Even more surprising than Happy Death Day‘s adherence to a nü metal 90s slasher aesthetic & mean girl sorority humor is its New Orleans setting. Watching the film just blocks away from its Loyola campus filming location was a surreal experience, one backed up by the tree moss & streetcars in the background and the school mascot/killer’s mask bearing a striking resemblance to the (even more terrifying) king cake baby mascot that seasonally appears at our local NBA games. I honestly fall a little too perfectly in the film’s target audience Venn diagram to offer an unbiased opinion: I was a teenage boy who grew up on post-Scream slashers; I consider Groundhog Day to be one of the best-written films of all time; I’m a lifelong New Orleans resident. I personally hit the full Happy Death Day demographic trifecta. Even being immersed in that perspective, I like to imagine that plenty of other people, especially 2010s teens, will have blast with the film. It’s not the clever, paradigm-shifting Groundhog Day reimagining of Edge of Tomorrow, but it’s still solidly entertaining as a dumb fun horror flick. It’s just one that admittedly focuses more on the dumb fun than it does on the horror.