By: Benjamin Koslowe  | 

Happy Death Day: Cheap Thrills at Best

True, Happy Death Day is narratively nonsensical. True, the acting is subpar, the dialogue is weak, the conflicts are not compelling, and even the scant romance is tacky. But the real flaw in this recent Hollywood slasher film is that it fails even at what it sets out to achieve – to be scary.

Not that Happy Death Day exactly aimed for the Oscars or sophisticated critical acclaim. The $5 million budget film follows college student Tree Gelbman who is a mean person and – well, that’s pretty much her only significant feature. Following the shtick of Groundhog Day, the film has Tree trapped in a world in which she wakes up every morning on the same October 18th, as if her own personal “yesterday” that she lived through never really happened. The Halloween-style twist, à la the 1996 Scream, is that a masked psychopath stabs Tree to death at the end of every day in this Kafkaesque predicament.

Happy Death Day’s rising action revolves around Tree’s attempt to identify her murderer and to live one day where she successfully shirks pointy weapons of death. Along the way she learns that being nice is good, reconciles her fraught Daddy relationship in around five sentences of conversation, and falls in love with some random bro who picked her up at a frat party the night before.

If the film sounds stupid, it’s because it objectively is such. But the film at least excels in scaring the bejesus out of viewers, right?

Not right. And here’s why: The notion of an insane person murdering you in a dark alley is horrifying, but completely unrealistic. Jump-scares in a dark theater might engender heart thumping or even a small shriek, but the fear, like a sneeze, dissipates quickly and leaves little impression on anyone’s consciousness. And that’s really all that Happy Death Day has going for it. The content of the film belongs to the same set as shark attacks, zombie apocalypses, or evil spirits: scary prospects to be sure, but too ridiculously absurd to merit enduring anxiety.

Surely the creators of Happy Death Day don’t deserve too much slack. After all, the success of similar scary movies like Friday the 13th or When a Stranger Calls suggests that there is some market for the genre. Perhaps there is a sufficient amount of young couples looking for an amusing, cheap, mildly thrilling date night to fill enough theater seats and help studios earn back their small budgets.

But it is important to realize that these films are the muck of horror stories. Putting aside cut-rate psychopath slashers, there is good storytelling to be found in this realm.

In the Saw film series, victims of the eponymous Jigsaw Killer are forced into gruesome torture apparatuses that relate to the characters’ personality flaws and basic fears. While there is a personified villain, the real horror of the films derives from relating to characters forced to combat their own evils. This truer type of horror strikes a deeper chord whose relatable echo lingers in vulnerable viewers long after the credits finish rolling.

Stephen King, the undisputed master of horror fiction, likewise skillfully taps into real, natural fear in his many novels. While his heroes (and antiheroes) often face supernatural enemies, the monster is never just some unconnected psychopath, but is rather always somehow symbolic of deep qualities or traits within the characters. Jack Torrance in King’s The Shining faces some spooky stuff in the haunted Overlook Hotel, but the horrors all in some way or another represent the very real and stronger demons – which are, unfortunately, all too common in the lives of many readers – that are his temper and alcoholism.

The shapeshifting clown in It (subject of a recent good film adaptation) never sneaks up from behind with a bloody knife, but rather embodies different forms that touch on the protagonist children’s deepest insecurities. It is scary because, after all, who can’t relate to the terrors involved in growing up?

And to finish off the logical extension, consider horror stories completely devoid of psychopaths or supernatural monsters. In King’s Apt Pupil, a perfectly normal high school boy rapidly descends into the depths of moral abhorrence after befriending an elderly ex-Nazi in his community. The novella is not only compelling, but also extremely scary. The only “monster,” as it were, is the evil within the fabrics of the human condition. What if I were in the protagonist’s shoes? the reader asks. Would I too become like that?

Readers and viewers hold onto fearful stories, and society makes them endure, when they are relatable. Happy Death Day, failing to do so, will most definitely be forgotten.

1/5 Stars. 0 Screams.