In director Doug Liman’s rootin’-tootin’ action sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays a soldier who cannot die. Protecting humanity from the scourge of alien swine, Maj. William Cage gets chopped down on the battlefield time and time again, only to return from the great beyond – Groundhog Day style – smarter, sharper and more determined. The film is a metaphor for the infallibility of the male Hollywood hero.
In director Christopher Landon’s slasher thriller Happy Death Day, Jessica Rothe plays a naughty sorority girl who cannot live. Tree Gelbman, a promiscuous, snippy, standoffish no-gooder, wakes up with a hangover in a stranger’s bed on her birthday. Every time the sun goes down, she gets brutally murdered by a masked killer, only to return from the great beyond – Groundhog Day style – more desperate, anxious and exasperated. The film is a metaphor for nothing.
Edge of Tomorrow showcases valour – male, predominantly, but with an arse-kicking supporting performance from Emily Blunt – from a frenetic but intellectually interesting perspective. Happy Death Day takes a female anti-hero (Tree is not blessed with the virtues of heroism) and delights in seeing her minced, flayed and tossed like a salad, as she travels down a long, weary and extremely stabby path towards personal redemption.
Screenwriter Scott Lobdell establishes the protagonist’s far from pleasant personality in no uncertain terms. Tree is rude to the nice guy (Israel Broussard) she wakes up next to, then rude to the woman on campus petitioning to fight climate change, then rude to the slightly creepy, desperate dude who boulders up to her and asks why she hasn’t returned his calls. “Who takes a person to Subway for their first date?,” she snaps. “It’s not like you have a footlong.”
“Happy Death Day takes a female anti-hero and delights in seeing her minced, flayed and tossed like a salad…”
By painting Tree as one in need of spiritual cleansing and life re-alignment, the implication underneath what follows is both obvious, and yet sickening to articulate: that the character on some level deserves what is coming to her. Which. Is. Brutal. Death. On. Repeat. And that, just as perversely, this will form a storyline in which the protagonist will learn to become a better person, by being repeatedly murdered in horrible ways.
The most recent film from Happy Death Day’s producer Jason Blum, Get Out, cleverly exploited discrepancies between character and filmmaker motivation, infusing a storyline informed by genre operandi with Obama era, post-racial irony. That film could only have come from an African American storyteller (Jordan Peele). You could sense the critical yet personal distance coursing through its veins; the transformation of real-life pain into double-entendre and grotesquery.
Not so for Blum’s new film. Written and directed by men, Happy Death Day feels as sexist and misguided as any of the frat boys stomping around Tree’s college. In one scene, after taking an unusually long time to ascertain that she is experiencing the same day again and again, as if she were simply too stupid to realise the blaringly obvious, Tree executes a brilliant plan. With an ear-to-ear smile on her face, she struts through the campus naked, because – well, we are never told why, or provided any suggestion of how this might help her predicament. Moments later we do, however, watch a close-up of her face getting clubbed with a baseball bat.
We also learn the following things (beware, because major spoilers follow; skip to the next paragraph to avoid them). The sweet guy who mansplains to Tree about how there’s “always a chance to change” was right: she will do better. The creepy dude without the footlong isn’t creepy at all; he’s just coming to terms with his sexuality. The dribbling, cartoonishly evil man Tree believes is her killer didn’t actually do it; the perpetrator is one of her jealous female friends, with whom matters are resolved via catfight. And when things get too much to bear for Tree, she can always pip her killer to the post by putting a noose around her neck and snuffing herself – illustrated in a scene as ugly and problematic as anything from Netflix’s repulsive 13 Reasons Why.
“A sick, slimy and noxious stalker-slasher, terribly repetitive and not even amusing accidentally.”
Was Happy Death Day secretly financed by men’s rights activists, the bros behind The Red Pill backing their first narrative feature? That might explain the film’s politics, built around pitying male brethren when it is a woman who is constantly besieged in the most heinous of ways.
But it would not explain why the filmmakers assumed viewers would want to return again and again to an uninteresting day, populated by uninteresting characters, in uninteresting environments (i.e. campus parties and dormitories) in execution of a highly unoriginal concept. Though this core problem turns out to be the least of the film’s worries.
Another critic can unpack Happy Death Day’s bland compositions, soporific performances and tin-eared dialogue. What you need to know now is: this is a sick, slimy and noxious stalker-slasher, terribly repetitive and not even amusing accidentally. Built joylessly by and for men – about the mean pretty girl who must change – it is as intellectually interesting as the hipster character who appears, at the start of every (repeated) day, to comment on Tree’s “fine vagine.”