Happy Death Day
Loving the Premise, Liking the Movie
By Evan Purcell – The new horror-comedy film Happy Death Day instilled a very powerful emotion in me: disappointment. I was so disappointed in the film, in fact, that I had to wait a few days to truly process my feelings. In case you haven’t heard of this film, Death Day is a horror version of Groundhog Day, following a college student who relives the day of her murder over and over again. Once the credits rolled and the central mystery had been resolved, I walked out of the cinema with my head hung low.
Was the film really that bad? No. Not at all. It was fun and clever and had some nice moments. As far as PG13-rated horror, it was totally fine. Why, then, was I so disappointed? It took me a while to realize the answer. I was disappointed with Happy Death Day because I loved the premise, but I only liked the movie.
This had happened to me before. A few years ago, a horror-comedy called Final Girls came out. Its premise: a modern girl gets sucked into an 80s horror movie and attempts to reconnect with her dead mother through the fictional character that her mother once played. This premise is right up my alley. I love 80s slasher films, and I love meta-comedies that tie themselves in knots. And when I saw the film (which is a much better one than Death Day, admittedly), I was disappointed. It wasn’t what I wanted. Once again, I loved the premise but I only liked the movie.
There have been a handful of other times when I’ve felt this way. 2014’s Stage Fright is a slasher musical starring Meatloaf! 2007’s Mother of Tears is Dario Argento’s long-delayed sequel to Suspiria! 2014’s The Houses October Built is a found footage horror movie about real Halloween haunts! All three of these movies left me deflated and numb. Are they bad? No. They all have some interesting moments, even Mother of Tears. They just disappointed me.
But it was only after Happy Death Day that I really started to reevaluate my reaction, and I realized that I wasn’t seeing the movies for what they were. I wasn’t upset by the flaws; I was upset by how far they’d strayed away from their premises. In fact, I’d fundamentally misunderstood what each was attempting, and my reaction turned to disappointment.
In my mind, Stage Fright was a horror movie with songs, but in reality, it was a musical with kills. After seeing its (kick-ass) trailer, I was imagining a different movie, one that the filmmakers weren’t interested in making. The same was true for Mother of Tears (which offered a more modern gorefest instead of an artful throwback), Houses October Built (a less reverential look at Halloween culture), and Final Girls (more of an emotional family drama than a love letter to 80s horror).
This all brings us back to Happy Death Day. When I saw the trailer, I imagined a more harrowing experience, one in which the time loop premise was utilized to tease out the mystery and expand the scope of each successive murder scene. The movie in my head was gnarly and twisted, and I would still like to see that movie. It’s not Happy Death Day, though. Happy Death Day is much goofier.
The point is, this movie didn’t squander the premise. On the contrary, it milked the premise in pursuit of some genuinely clever jokes and character moments. I plan to see it again, and hopefully walk into the theater with a better frame of mind. More importantly, I’ll try to use this experience as a lesson: No matter how much you like the idea behind a movie, don’t imagine what it’ll be before you see it. That will blind you to what the movie really wants to be.
Happy Death Day is not a disappointment. It’s just different from what I expected. And that’s okay.