Too ‘happy’ for horror: ‘Happy Death Day’ pokes fun at classic genre tropes

Ysabela Golden

There’s nothing like being scared out of your wits to make a joke twice as hilarious as it should have been. Maybe the punchline is just harder to see coming when you’re frightened, or maybe your mind is already so desperate for relief it would have laughed at anything, but whatever the reason, it’s clear that horror and comedy are the chocolate and peanut butter of movie genres. Sure, they’re good separately, but there’s no denying that the combination is on another level entirely.

“Happy Death Day” takes this logic in a different direction. Despite misleading trailers, the movie is more of a dark comedy than a slasher flick. Jokes aren’t an occasional reprieve from the horror; rather, scares are an occasional interruption from the movie’s humor. “Happy Death Day” takes a disturbing premise—being murdered over and over again in increasingly brutal ways by a faceless and omnipresent stalker—and twists it into 96 minutes of hilarity, save for a good handful of well-earned character moments and a couple jump scares for good measure.

Much of the film’s humor comes from its meta-awareness of the horror genre. The birthday girl, Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, is a superficial and unsympathetic sorority sister who’s having an affair with her chemistry professor, exactly the kind of character who’s traditionally killed off early in a horror movie to kick-start the plot (and to introduce the monster before they start stalking their more wholesome, probably less-blonde protagonist). Tree dies right on schedule, but instead of moving on to the next victim, the movie gives her another chance to prevent the trope from being played straight. And then it gives her another chance. And another. And another. 

The point is she gets a lot of chances. The “Groundhog Day” premise kills any suspense—the audience knows, just by looking up showtimes and reading the movie’s one-sentence summary, that Tree will repeatedly survive attempts on her life—but the filmmakers seemed to have realized that from the get-go and quickly abandon the standard slasher formula for Looney-Tunes-style comedic violence. Though eventually the movie takes Tree’s potential death more seriously, it’s only when she’s progressed as a character to the point that her repeated demise just isn’t as funny as it used to be. 

In this way, making the bulk of the movie more humorous than horrifying works to its benefit. Many otherwise-scary films lose their punch when the killer is confronted and the suspense is gone, but this film’s flippant attitude toward its subject matter allows it to actually escalate during the climax, the plot’s twists and turns and Tree’s increasingly endearing character keeping the viewer engaged. 

So if you’re looking for a gory horror flick to keep you on the edge of your seat this Halloween, “Happy Death Day” probably isn’t the movie for you. I’d recommend “Jigsaw” if I thought it was possible for the eighth movie in a franchise to be worth watching. But if you’re more in the mood for some good laughs in keeping with the spooky spirit of the season, then maybe give this darkly humorous depiction of what is undoubtedly the worst birthday ever a chance.