Review: ‘Happy Death Day’ is a Fun, Self-Aware Slasher Arriving Just in Time for Halloween

Blumhouse throws their hat into the ring this Halloween season with this clever horror comedy. 

RATING: ★★★ (out of four stars)

The 1990s were a decade full of trends and fads respective to its place in time; and the film industry at that period had trends of its own, from low-budget independent films from what would be the greatest auteurs of today to the birth and rise of computer generated animation and effects. The slasher subgenre would be another trend that was prevalent throughout multiplexes; Wes Craven’s New Nightmare set a new bar for the subgenre while I Know What You Did Last Summer and the Scream franchise would become smash hits at the box office in their respective years. Flash forward to this weekend, where Happy Death Day makes its way to theaters as something that at least feels inspired by the slasher films of the 90s and even Groundhog Day, a comedy staple of the time period. It certainly isn’t on the same level of the former or as innovative as the latter, but it mashes the concepts of the two together to create a self-aware piece of dumb entertainment just in time for Halloween.

And leave it to no one other than Blumhouse Productions to inject clever fun into the horror genre. Founded in 2000 by Emmy-award winning Jason Blum, Blumhouse is a production company with a smart business model: specialize in the horror genre, which has a niche audience already built in, and produce films with low budgets while giving directors full creative control over their product. The payoff has been successful for both the company and the directors under their watch. James Wan was able to perfect his craft through the first two Insidious films, Scott Derrickson continued his background in scares with the underrated supernatural film Sinister, M. Night Shyamalan resurrected his career working with them while directing The Visit and Split, and earlier this year, Jordan Peele brought social commentary back into the genre through his film Get Out, which is on its way to becoming a potential Oscar contender. That being said, Blumhouse has had its fair share duds over the years, from Eli Roth’s outdated and juvenile gorefest The Green Inferno, to the majority of Paranormal Activity sequels. Christopher B. Landon directed the fourth of those sequels (The Marked Ones) before helming Happy Death Day, but the direction in his newest film is focused and in check thanks to a script with a clever concept and sense of self-awareness.

Happy Death Day begins with the film’s protagonist, Teresa (nicknamed ‘Tree’ by her fellow sorority girls and played by Jessica Rothe), waking up on the morning of her birthday in the dorm room of well-meaning one-night stand Carter (Israel Broussard), hungover from a night of heavy drinking. From there she does the walk of shame back to her sorority house, ignores phone calls from her father, visits her professor who she’s having an affair with, and has a meeting with her catty sorority sisters before making her way to her surprise birthday party only to be murdered on the way by a serial killer in a black hoodie and a baby mask of her university’s mascot, the Bayville Baby (It could have been worse….the Fisher Bunnies is a team that exists). Tree is killed, only to wake up the next morning as she did at the beginning of the film forced to relive her birthday and subsequent murder again and again until she solves who the murderer is. With the help of Carter, she investigates her list of suspects all while her deaths grow more and more varied, explosive and even hilarious, particularly in an early death scene where a bong is the killer’s main weapon.

From its marketing campaign, Happy Death Day looked like a film that could have been terrible if it took itself too seriously. But thankfully, it has a self-aware sense of humor that pokes fun at the cliques and stereotypes of college students, and even puts funny spins tired narrative tropes and clichés; how Tree realizes there’s something special about Carter is hilarious solely for his graphic line that sets it up, and there’s even a set piece where she’s texting her sorority leader while one person is dancing in a rave in the background until the killer shows up that’s enjoyable. The investigation montage that follows is also fun to watch play out as Tree goes to incredible lengths to spy on her suspects while searching for her killer. But what stands out the most in this film is the performance of Jessica Rothe as Tree; she exudes her range as an upcoming scream queen through how she handles all the comedic scenes, moments of terror and even a pivotal scene toward the end where her internal dramatic arc comes to a head. It also helps when she’s given a story based around a character who progresses herself from a self-centered sorority girl into a better, more caring person, despite the arc feeling similar to other movies.

Along with its familiarity, Happy Death Day feels like a movie that would have benefited from an R rating. As it stands rated PG-13, the kills are fun and clever but the film doesn’t fully embrace the absurdity and ridiculousness of its concept as it should. It’s also worth mentioning that the traditionally scary beats of the subgenre lack any feeling of terror, but that’s only for the reason that the movie is less of a horror film and more of a comedy. For those reasons, Happy Death Day isn’t the best film in the horror genre to come out this year. However, it still has a great performance from its lead actress, as well as a clever concept with tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and that separates itself from the slate of upcoming horror films for the remainder of Halloween season. So if you’ve already seen the It remake and are in the mood for a fun, dumb slasher film that’s entertaining for its runtime, Happy Death Day is worth gathering a group of friends to check it out with this weekend.