I wasn’t expecting much going into HAPPY DEATH DAY. At best, I expected an enjoyably bad popcorn movie. At worst, I was expecting annoying characters, a boring story, and a humorless script.

I’ve never been happier to be wrong.

HAPPY DEATH DAY is a legitimately good movie. It’s not “so bad it’s good,” and it’s not something you’d watch on the Syfy channel. It’s just a good film. Sure, it’s got more than a few problems, but when all is said and done, I really liked this movie, and I think it deserves more attention.

The Mystery Is Well Done

The plot of the movie is simple, but it’s the execution that matters. Jessica Rothe plays a self-absorbed sorority girl who keeps reliving her birthday. By the end of each day, someone stabs her to death, and she’s on a mission to find out who it is. There’s just one problem: she’s kind of a terrible person and a lot of people might want her dead. To make matters worse, the killer is wearing the mask of the school mascot, and since it’s game-night, there’s a ton of people wearing the same mask. These factors add some depth to the mystery, and ultimately make it more challenging to solve.

Who the hell thought this was a good idea for a mascot?

I did manage to predict who the killer was fairly early, but only because I was expecting an “unlikely” twist. Even so, the film does its best to throw red-herrings your way, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall for them. I’m not saying the plot was riveting or groundbreaking, but it was enjoyable, and that’s all I could really ask for.

The Plot Has Some Distracting Holes

There is one aspect of the narrative that completely falls flat. As I mentioned above, the protagonist is constantly reliving the same day. Now, I don’t expect the movie to explain why this is happening. I can accept some level of fantasy.

But the more you choose to explain something, the more it has to make sense. This is the problem with HAPPY DEATH DAY’S mystery. As the film goes on, it’s revealed that, somehow, the more our hero dies, the weaker she gets. According to an x-ray she takes, her insides are scarred, broken, and according to the doctor, she should be dead.

Now, the idea here is to give her a hard limit on how many times she can die before she’s too weak to fight back, adding some additional stakes to the narrative. The problem is that this entire plot point is completely forgotten after it is mentioned. About 10 minutes are spent explaining this, with our character passing out and waking up in a hospital, it never becomes a factor again. The next time she dies, she seems completely fine.

The Characters Are Perfectly Portrayed — Especially the Lead

A lot of slasher films focus on shallow, annoying, or otherwise unlikable people. This can be a tool to desensitize the viewer, to ensure they don’t feel guilty watching these people die. HAPPY DEATH DAY is no different in this regard, at least not at first.

Most of the characters are vapid, self-absorbed, and petty, and the movie is surprisingly aware of this. Instead of feeling like the result of a bad script, the people of HAPPY DEATH DAY are a playful parody of college kids.  As someone who just finished college, I can’t say their portrayal is far from the truth.

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This goes especially for our lead, played by Jessica Rothe, who begins as a rather despicable person. She’s the stereotypical sorority girl. She’s rude, arrogant, and downright cruel to the people around her. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, it’s clear you’re not supposed to like her.

But as the film goes on, you start to grow attached to these delightfully cynical characters. As the days go by, Rothe’s character begins to open up. Reliving the same day forces her to re-examine her treatment of others, and she gradually becomes a genuinely likable character. At its core this is just basic character development, but that’s hard to come by in a slasher movie.

This is arguably Jessica Rothe’s breakout performance. Throughout the movie, she demonstrates her versatility as a comedic and dramatic actor. She’s likable, charismatic, and can sell any line of dialogue you put in front of her. The narrative relies on the audience hating her in the beginning and cheering for her by the end. A lesser actor could have easily ruined this movie. It’s a challenge to play a character like this, but she absolutely nails it.

It’s Surprisingly Funny

Early in the film, there’s a scene where Rothe is so distracted by her phone, that she fails to notice a potential lover being brutally stabbed behind her. This scene sets the comedic tone of the movie, and it fails to disappoint from there on. Most of the comedy is derived from morbid hijinks, vapid adolescent behavior, and a parody of first-world problems.  Our hero becomes so jaded by death that by the end of the film she’s killing herself just to restart the day. The killer’s motivations are ultimately so shallow that it feels like the punchline to a 90 minute joke. Gags like this characterize the film and give it a playfully dark personality.

She should really be more observant.

Much of the humor is interwoven with the film’s violent subject matter. Rothe’s increasingly blasé reactions to her own death are often used for comedic effect. Watching her begin to accept, and even take advantage of her situation, leads to some laughs as well, thanks to Rothe’s comedic and charismatic performance. As she tries to unravel the mystery, she dons camouflage, arms herself to the teeth, and skulks around the campus looking for suspects. One by one, her tactics fail spectacularly, leading to her inevitable death. I’m a big fan of this sort of lighthearted, morbid comedy, and if the moments described above resonate with you, then you’re probably the right audience for this film.

But this also brings me to my biggest problem with the movie, something that works against it, and would easily ruin it if not for the enjoyable mystery and humorous characters.

This Should’ve Been A Hard R

HAPPY DEATH DAY is rated PG-13. This is nonsense.

For better or worse, you can’t have a slasher film without violence. It’s like having a comedy without jokes or an action film without fight scenes. It just doesn’t make sense. Imagine what they could’ve done with an R rating, how creative the movie could’ve gotten with each death scene. Imagine them getting increasingly elaborate, outlandish, and painful. Instead, for a film that focuses so heavily on death, most of them are pretty lackluster. The film usually cuts away before the fatal blow, ruining any sense of payoff, and there’s barely a drop of blood throughout the entire runtime.

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Look, I know I sound like a raving lunatic, wishing for more gore and guts to fuel some insatiable bloodlust, but you go into a slasher film with certain expectations. In a comedic horror especially, violence can be used as an extreme form of slapstick, blending the two genres into a cohesive, enjoyable whole. Instead, the rating fights against the film every step of the way, and it suffers from a serious identity crisis because of it.

The Verdict

HAPPY DEATH DAY is by no means a masterpiece. It doesn’t redefine the genre, nor does it pretend to be something it’s not. But this is a damn fun movie. Once I got past my own preconceptions, I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride. Sure, the supernatural elements are poorly explained, and the film suffers heavily from self-imposed censorship, but I had a grin on my face from start to finish. From Rothe’s breakout performance, to the morbid comedy, to the enjoyable mystery, HAPPY DEATH DAY is a great way to finish your October.

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