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Happy Death Day film review: Groundhog Day reinvented as a sickeningly sexist stalker-slasher

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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.”

18 responses to “Happy Death Day film review: Groundhog Day reinvented as a sickeningly sexist stalker-slasher

  1. Crikey Luke how many films have there been where a person of the male gender gets murdered, ground up or whatever? So here we have one where the recipient is a woman and you’ve ended up with an outrage overload. Could you maybe like review the film on the basis that people who like gore/horror will or won’t enjoy it without aligning it with Feminist Studies 101?

    So ignoring the gender thing, is it a bad film just because of the acting or script or whatever….. because it’s hard to tell if your rant was skewed more than just a bit?

    1. Equally, men and women have been murdered, brutally, in film. That’s not what this is about. It’s about the sexist undertones.

  2. So this movie challenges your belief in the notion of the pure and righteous female. It challenges your conclusions that women cannot be fallible individually and that they are good and pure as a collective borg. It treats a woman as disposable as how a man is traditionally, and it makes you uncomfortable. This discomfort makes you lash out with your mantras, which you coddle tightly to protect your brain from the washing it’s received.

    Welcome to art, Luke. Art doesn’t exist to pander to your cult like views.

    Tell me I’m mansplaining, and I’ll tell you that you’re proving me right.

    We accept fallible male characters but when we’re given a fallible female one, it’s a problem. Until that changes, we cannot say we are truly equal.

    1. “Fallible female characters” are.. extremely, extremely common.. ? And disposable? How so? Because I would argue that women are viewed as disposable.

  3. Bleh and Jim I suspect that the reviewer and I do not take a view about all men. But I can tell you I take a view about you both. Would you be available for a sequel or a gender reversed remake? I would pay money to see you both placed in gruesome situations – like having your bits compared to fast food sandwiches (which are its widely reported not as long as claimed). When I see the word Bleh I wonder about parental naming trends and then I tune out…………

  4. Oh my god Gender bashing is alive and well. Thank you Luke for calling this film for what it appears to be. And gentlemen above try to be a little more generous and less defensive.

    1. If this film was misogynistic or bashful of women, the main character would not be a woman that we are meant to root for and empathize with.

  5. It rather makes you wonder what the world is coming to when in a film of – what? – 90-odd minutes’ duration, filled with repeated scenes of what I assume is graphic, gratuitous homicide and obscene violence visited on one human being by another, the gender of the protagonist is the main issue that is raised for discussion.

    That’s not to belittle the importance of misogyny and feminism and all those related issues as matters that need to be talked about, but surely that’s not the only morally-dubious aspect of movies of this genre?

    There are many justified concerns about the prevalence of male violence, but is not normalisation of graphic violence such as this part of the problem? (No, I haven’t seen the movie yet and probably won’t having read Luke’s review, but I’m talking about the genre in general.)

    Why do we – both men and women – continue to classify films like this as ‘entertainment’? What’s wrong with us?

  6. Well, I left the cinema and honestly, this movie blew my balls off. The movie dropped so many clues about who the real killer was, such as the poisoned cupcake that never actually gets eaten until after Tree kills the serial killer, but I never picked up on that detail at ALL. After Tree had crossed the names off the suspect list, I was thinking “okay, maybe it’s her dad, or it really is just Tomb? Well, damn it, that’s weak.” But then suddenly, boom, Danielle was trying to murder Tree and the movie was dropping the subtle hints with the cupcake the whole time. That’s why I love this movie. While the jump scares were kind of cliche, the plot ends with such a brilliant twist that a second viewing of the film would start making me notice the clues.

    Your review? Every third sentence is just painful to read. All you could focus on was the gender and sexuality of the film’s characters and producers. You seem more focused on how a woman, in a horror movie made by men, dies over and over. You even dropped the word “mansplain” in your review (seriously, using words like that and others such as “manspreading” instantly makes me tune out. I want to hear a discussion, not be told that men suck). Now, if all the gender roles were reversed, say, the women directed this film and the man dies over and over, I would bet fifty dollars that you would praise the film for standing up to the patriarchy and proving that being a woman doesn’t mean you can’t make good horror movies (this is obviously the case, women are easily capable of producing good horror movies, like American Psycho).

    “Which. Is. Brutal. Death. On. Repeat.”

    Okay, that line needs a clapping emoji between each word because that’s the only way I can describe how much this kind of writing annoys me.

    In short:
    *I liked the movie because even though it’s cliche-y and feels like a horror version of Groundhog Day, the ending is brilliant and replaying the movie in my head makes me realize how many subtle hints there were.
    *You hated the movie because of the genders of the people involved in the film in relation to the plot.

  7. This is one long rant about how sexist the movie is, yet every poll shows that more women than men want to see it. I’m interested to see if female viewers enjoy it more than male ones. Then I’m sure you’ll mansplain to them why they shouldn’t like it.

    1. You think women don’t internalise misogyny, Jim? I read this review and thought, “thank f* for this male ally who gets that women being reduced to the status of meaty punching bags is disgusting, & calls out this asinine, conservative wet dream of a movie for what it is.”

      Also, wtf is with reactionary jerks appropriating concepts that sprang out of feminist left critique? “Mansplaining”? It’s a movie review, f*er, it’s /supposed/ to involve well-reasoned, critical deconstruction and thoughtful engagement with an audience. Which mansplaining doesn’t. Go back to 4chan.

      1. When I see the word “mansplaining”, I tune out. It’s sexist and it’s entire purpose is to put down men, but if one were to use the term “womansplaining”, everybody would be up in arms about it. Point is, it’s just a pain to see people discredit what other people by saying “You’re [gender], you can’t [action]”

        1. “Mansplaining” exists as a pejorative shorthand to challenge a problematic part of the status-quo. It refers to a common and entrenched condescension (probably why it doesn’t require an explanation to most people). I think the author’s use here is a good way to express what they thought of that part of the plot. You might disagree and say that the character was being merely informative, rather than condescending (instead you focus on your faux-outrage of the use of a particular word). I’d suggest you stop tuning out when that word is used, because English evolves and I think this word is here to stay (so long as the problem exists).

          No one is suggesting you can’t use “Womansplaining” (as far as I can see) – it just isn’t used because it isn’t relevant.

          Mansplaining is the description of a sexist act (as I said, short hand for a particular type of condescension), but how is the use of that word sexist in this context?

          1. Yes you factually can on both accounts.
            Just because white people/males are not systematically oppressed does not mean there are not people out there that hold malice or commit crimes against them for the singular reason of them being white or male which is what sexism or racism boils down too.

      2. She hasn’t been reduced to anything, she is the main character of the freaking movie experiencing a arc and character growth.
        And if you think there is anything “conservative” about slasher films your insane, ever hear of the video nasties laws from the 80s? Countless horror movies rounded up, burned in piles and banned & censored in entire countries. That was puritan conservatives doing that.

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