‘Happy Death Day’: Why a Horror ‘Groundhog Day’ Rip Off is Secretly a Genius Idea

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(Photo: Universal)

It’s easy to get cynical when seemingly formulaic movies like Happy Death Day come along.

The whole world is really getting into horror at the moment, with Stranger Things seemingly having opened the door for a series or terrifying TV shows and movies that use spooky scenarios to explore more complex ideas.

The first big movie hit of the year was Get Out, which uses established tropes from movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Stepford Wives to make a point about race relations in modern America.

More recently, we got a new adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, which, if you boil it down, is about the dangers of childhood fantasy escapism, and the terror of growing up. There’s a reason this movie is set in the Eighties, and it’s not just because Stranger Things already proved the market for nostalgic horror.

So when a movie like Happy Death Day appears on the scene, ostensibly a cross between Groundhog Day and basically any slasher flick ever made, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what the appeal is.

Groundhog Day is a popular movie, and its mechanic has shown up time and time again in movies, TV, and even video games. Edge of Tomorrow (or Live, Die, Repeat if you’re Doug Liman) takes the premise of repeating the same day over and over, and applies it to a sci-fi world so generic it might as well be a video game, with a character respawning endlessly after each death.

Heck, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask drops this mechanic directly into a game – but more on that in a minute.

So, clearly, someone from the Blumhouse production company (they’ve done a bunch of other horror movies you’ve probably heard about but already forgotten, and also Get Out) thought it’d be neat if they remade Groundhog Day, but made Bill Murray a sexy college girl, and threw in Scream for good measure.

Sounds dumb, right? It’s just an excuse to have the classic horror trope of a slutty blonde girl dying over and over and over for two hours. Pretty much pointless.

Except, there’s something smart at the heart of making a horror movie that uses the Groundhog Day mechanic.

After all, the premise of Happy Death Day is that the main character, a worn-down, tired, clearly emotionally drained character who is facing the prospect of becoming one year older, having to relive her birthday over and over and over, facing the same chores and hassles every day, until her eventual death.

In other words, it’s a perfect metaphor for life in general. You get stuck in a rut, go through the motions endlessly, and have nothing to look forward to but the sweet release of death.

Yeesh, that’s dark. But then, of course it is, it’s a horror movie.

Source: Universal

This is a premise that definitely fits with the trite Groundhog Day formula. It works so well that it’s essentially the entire premise of Majora’s Mask, as the player character travels back and forth in time on a three day cycle, meeting characters who all face their impending death with different attitudes. Some are stoic, some stick to their jobs, some live in denial, and some are only focused on spending time with their loved ones.

There’s a lot of depth and emotional resonance to this concept. Aren’t we all, to one degree or other, stuck in this same endless loop? What is different about each day of our lives?

The weird thing about this, the part of Happy Death Day that doesn’t quite seem to fit, is the setting. Main character Tree (yes, that’s apparently her name) is a college student – she’s not trapped in a dead-end or otherwise dull job that she hates, as in the original Groundhog Day.

Traditionally, college movies exist as little more than an opportunity to show crazy party, kinky sex, and hot young characters. Heck, the amount of skin this movie shows in the trailer alone suggests that this is going to be pretty standard teen movie fare, with lead actor Jessica Rothe getting undressed in several unrelated scenes.

Surely, life in college shouldn’t feel like the monotonous drudgery that the premise best lends itself to. College isn’t as controlling and structured as high school, nor is it as soul-crushing as a nine-to-five job. If anything, this period of Tree’s life should be one of gleeful experimentation and exciting adventures, rather than a millstone around her neck as she searches for her killer.

Here’s hoping that this one flaw in the formula is given a justification in the movie. Perhaps there’s some big reason why Tree feels trapped, which would give audiences reason to agree that her new repeating life sucks. Certainly, there’s a hint that, unlike in Groundhog Day, her body isn’t instantly bouncing back unscathed from her various deaths.

Source: Universal

Otherwise, though, it’ll be hard to understand why it would be so horrible to be eternally trapped in an endless cycle while in college. Who wouldn’t want to be young and beautiful forever, while hanging out in a world of cultural experimentation and free thinking, without any solid commitments? That sounds awesome!

But, then, this movie needs to appeal to teenagers somehow. There’s no way anyone under the age of thirty five could appreciate this film if, instead of being about a sexy college student, it was about a middle-aged man with thinning hair who’s stuck in a small town full of weirdos.

Nope. No way that movie would work.