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You would think that for a movie billed as a horror flick, presenting endlessly dislikable character is a clever trick: wish the obnoxious sorority girls dead so that you are rejoiced when the cutting and dicing eventually comes. Such appears to be, at first glance anyway, what the upcoming slasher movie Happy Death Day has up its sleeve. That is until you realize that the movie lacks the courage of the bloody conviction even the worst of its predecessors boasts in pints of red, eschews all originality be the as of now officially tired and cliché “Groundhog Day” moniker, and does not even respect the audience enough to satisfy the bloodlust that drove them to the multiplex in the first place.

When we encounter Tree (Jessica Rothe), she is going about her day, being catty and unfriendly to every person that surrounds her hackneyed college life. She disses carbs, is mean to nerds, ignores her father, dismisses her drunken one night stand, and puts down her adoring roommate. Tree is stereotypically annoying when she parts with someone with the elongated “bye-eeee,” and she is unrealistically so when she summons someone into the room with “enter.” Really?

Soon enough, on her way to a party, Tree sees a mysterious music box spinning in a dark tunnel on campus, a scene that comes straight from any psycho-killer film from the 1990s and onwards—Scream, Valentine’s Day, Urban Legend, you name it. Like the ill-fated girls in those much better antecedents, Tree is not scared, and she shoes her might to the masked, one-toothed killer until the killer shows her a long kitchen knife, and it is lights out.

But there is a twist. Or is there? Tree wakes up and, surprise!, she is reliving the same day again, at first thinking she’s suffering from a strong case of déjà vu until she encounters the same school-mascot mask and the same nine inch blade. The movie knows it is Groundhog Day (or maybe Edge of Tomorrow or maybe Naked). It makes a joke about it, but the quip is insufficient to overcome the unoriginality of the concept. Worse, Happy Death Day seems to think that by using that device around a horror movie it is improving on the idea.

Instead, Happy Death Day is revealing something far more deadly about the industry it exists in. This genre has become so turgid, so utterly devoid of new concepts, that each movie is essentially a carbon copy of the next. Watching one is like reliving the same experience over and over again—with the death of joy at the end of the journey. If only that Happy Death Day were “meta” in that sense, subtly criticizing the milieu it inhabits by mocking these films as repetitive, dizzying, and ultimately predictable and unsatisfying. But it is not so. Happy Death Day insists that you take it seriously, insists that there is a meaning-of-life mystery at the heart of Tree’s problem and that, should she solve it, she will emerge a bigger person, and live to see another day.

Having “reset” triggers is obviously a key component of live-die-repeat movies. Tom Cruise’s movie uses it as its button. So what does the addition of the psycho killer, of the maniac mystery do here? Well, the obvious answer is that it pulls in fans of this type of film. But while Happy Death Day may be mildly amusing to fans of follow-the-girl up the stairs and kill the dumb blonde who thought she got away, I suspect it will be mostly disappointing to them. With only one victim, essentially, and arguably no real ones at all, Happy Death Day is not even a real horror film. It is simply a repeated day movie (oh God, is that a thing now?!) with a looney masked figure waiting at the end of the tunnel. Is it scary if you know when, and basically how, it is coming?

I wish I had better things to say other than that passing compliment—that some diehard junkies for this kind of fare may find it marginally enjoyable—but the bad acting, the half-baked lines, and the telegraphed twists and ultimate resolution make it difficult. Jessica Rothe is wildly miscast as a college freshman now that she is 30 years old, and when we get to the cheesy romance sequences and the “you see who you are by reliving the same day” poetics, you are ready to plunge the knife yourself.

Tree may be seeking an absolution, but can you forgive yourself for watching this film? If anything may be saved you really have to see it with the introspective perspective that I assure you the filmmakers did not intend. The endless loop of uninspired plots is symbolic of the film and of so many of its companions today—repeated, unimaginatively, over and over again.

Grade: D

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film ‘The Lost Weekend’ is pure coincidence

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