Austin Guiney

Movie review: Happy Death Day

“Happy Death Day” tells the story of Tree Gelbman, a college student who continuously relives the night of her murder. When Tree recounts her previous experiences, she attempts to discover the identity of her masked killer.

This story may draw inspiration from the 1993 comedy film, “Groundhog Day,” but similar stories have also existed since Ancient Greece.

One of these stories appears in Book XI of “The Odyssey,” when Homer retells the myth of Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra.

As the myth goes, Sisyphus narrowly escapes death by deceiving Hades, the god of the underworld. Enraged, Hades sentences Sisyphus to an eternal punishment of hard labor. Sisyphus goes on to spend his days endlessly pushing a stone up a hill, which repeatedly falls backwards under its own weight.

The myth of Sisyphus uses supernatural events to expose the injustices of living in a capitalist society. As a king, Sisyphus fears death because he fears giving up his extravagant lifestyle. As a servant to Hades, Sisyphus seeks death because he sees no pleasure in devoting his life to hard labor.

The myth of Sisyphus succeeds because it allows the audience to relate to the story. The characters have clear motivations, and the supernatural events do not overshadow the rest of the story.

Unfortunately, “Happy Death Day” fails in every way that the myth of Sisyphus succeeds at.

In the scenes leading up to the inciting incident, the audience learns very little about the the motivations of the characters that inhabit the story.

The main characters are: Carter Davis, the main love interest of the story; Lori and Danielle, Tree’s roommates; Tim, somebody who has briefly dated Tree; and Dr. Gregory Butler, a professor who is having an affair with Tree.

All of these characters follow predictable stereotypes, such as the excessively mean sorority women, the unabashedly caring love interest, or the predatory college professor. Only Carter receives any meaningful screen time beyond the introductory moments of the film.

The audience later learns about Tree’s family, but the backstory fails to give Tree any kind of emotional maturity.

When Tree eventually reveals that her mother has passed away, it feels unemotional, because she is already starting to come to terms with her feelings. Tree’s character arc ends before it can fully develop.

The second act spends a great amount of time reshowing previous scenes that are not meaningful to the main plot. The story could have spent this time developing existing characters, and introducing clues to solving the mystery. Instead, these repeated scenes only exist to fill out the run time.

When the film reaches its midpoint, Tree is able to convince Carter that somebody is trying to kill her. The pair create a list of possible suspects, before crossing out all of the names in a montage.

This montage betrays the premise of the movie, because the audience never has a chance to solve the mystery on their own. Tree dies in a variety of ways in this sequence, but the deaths are humorous rather than suspenseful.

After the montage ends, Tree begins to suspect that Dr. Butler is responsible for her numerous deaths. A few minutes later, however, she watches the killer brutally murder him.

“Happy Death Day” fails as a murder mystery film, because it clears characters of wrongdoing instead of letting the audience figure it out on their own. In more suspenseful stories, the audience slowly solves the mystery through clues and red herrings.

In the third act, the audience learns about Johnathan Tombs, a serial killer who is responsible for murdering six young women. Tree is certain that Tombs is behind her various murders, and tries to stop him.

The inclusion of Tombs feels unnecessary, because he only appears at the very end of the film. Tombs feels like a generic villain, rather than a frightening antagonist.

After Tree has a deadly encounter with Tombs, she achieves the “perfect day.” She reconciles with her friends and family, and successfully kills Tombs.

Unlike the ending of “Groundhog Day,” however, Tree fails to break her cycle. She wakes up the following morning, and she continues to relive the same day.

This sequence could have been a satisfying ending to the film. It would not only subvert the conclusion that the audience expects, but it would also mirror the fate of Sisyphus in Book XI of the “The Odyssey.”

At the end of the film, Tree realizes that Lori is the mastermind behind her countless murders. Tree arrives at this conclusion when she figures out that Lori has been trying to poison her with a cupcake. Tree also infers that Lori is her masked killer, and that Lori has been helping Tombs escape police captivity.

This final revelation fails to be very surprising, because there are only two real suspects in the film. The earlier montage sequence exonerates every character besides Lori, and Dr. Butler. After Dr. Butler dies, Lori is the only remaining suspect. Tombs appears too late in the film to be a believable suspect, and Carter only appears in the story to support Tree.

Lori wants to murder Tree because she is jealous of the affair that Tree is having with Dr. Butler. The two fight each other, and Tree kills Lori by kicking her out of a window in their dorm. Tree breaks her cycle, and the movie ends with Tree starting a relationship with Carter.

This ending feels unsatisfactory because there is no prior indication that Lori resents Tree, or that she wants to start a relationship with Dr. Butler. The final revelation also suffers because Lori does not have a sufficient amount of screen time as the main antagonist.

In the original ending to the film, Dr. Butler’s wife murders Tree at the hospital after her confrontation with Lori. This ending feels contrived because it only exists to surprise the audience after the resolution of the main conflict. This ending failed to impress test audiences, so the producers removed it from the theatrical version of the film.

Beyond the lackluster storytelling, “Happy Death Day” mishandles the way that it portrays sensitive topics.

When Tree reminisces about her mother, Danielle mocks a person with a hearing impairment in order to get her attention. This scene tries to create comic relief, but it ends up discriminating against people with disabilities.

When Tree fights the killer during her birthday party, a drunken person walks in on them. Tree screams for help, but the drunken person thinks that the two are about to have sex. He cheers them on, and leaves. This scene downplays the seriousness of sexual assault for the sake of awkward humor.

When Tree investigates her friends during the montage, she spies on Tim watching gay porn. At the end of the film, Tree tells Tim to embrace his identity as a gay man. Tree does not know where Tim lies on the sexual spectrum, but she assumes that he exclusively likes men. She also fails to consider the possibility that Tim will face discrimination if he chooses to be more open about his sexuality.

Ultimately, “Happy Death Day” fails to create a satisfying murder mystery film. The mystery is underwhelming, the characters lack emotional complexity, and the runtime feels bloated with too many unnecessary scenes. The awkward way that the film handles sensitive topics is the final nail in its coffin.

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