Thank the movie gods for Harold Ramis. As a cinematic treasure who was taken far too soon, his comic brilliance gave the world more classics than we have time to list. But perhaps above them all stands the loopy Groundhog Day, a Sisyphean nightmare about a cad forced to live the same miserable day for eternity… or at least until he gets the girl. It’s a premise so shockingly simple in its genius that you can remake it a hundred times in a hundred different genres and still almost always end up with something pretty damn good.
So enters Happy Death Day, the horror/slasher entry in the Groundhog universe, and one that is funnier and smarter than it has any right to be. More of a dark comedy than a straight horror, Happy Death Day takes a certain satisfaction in puncturing every mean girl stereotype with pointed glee. That it actually works is fairly impressive given the concept of watching a conceited blonde slaughtered again and again could go sideways real fast, and spin off into problematic territory.
And yet, this Blumhouse picture walks the edge and harnesses knife-taking-life clichés to produce a merry ride of Halloween silliness with far more chuckles than chills. It also uses its squirrely premise well enough to have its red-frosted cake and eat it too.
Wisely zeroed in on the quintessential stereotype of far less intelligent slashers, Happy Death Day is all about a blonde. A supposedly mean one at that. Appropriately beginning on one of the most miserable of collegiate experiences, particularly for women, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is forced to make the dreaded “walk of shame” across her quad ad infinitum. Not that she doesn’t own it.
A reigning sorority empress with a tongue that’s deadlier than any machete, Tree doesn’t have time for the nice guy stranger in whose bedroom she keeps awakening from, Carter (Israel Broussard), nor does she care about her Greek house’s queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews), whose ideal boyfriends Tree keeps picking away from. She won’t even take a bite of the birthday cupcake that roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) made for her. It’s her birthday, and she’ll celebrate it how she wants—by blowing off her father who arranged a lunch so as to snuggle up to her married professor (Charles Aitken), all while avoiding the attentions of ex-boyfriends.
In other words, Tree is the coed version of Bill Murray’s Phil Connors and has made a lot of enemies. The main difference, however, is one of them has made it their priority to turn this into her last birthday. And they succeed a lot. To Tree’s increasing horror and delirium, no matter what she does or who she confides in, a masked killer with a knife, baseball bat, speeding car, or a litany of other creative weapons finds her and makes sure she doesn’t survive to see a new dawn.
So in addition to becoming a better person by reliving the same day, Tree is going to need to figure out who this psycho stalker is if she ever gets to wake up without a crippling hangover and a memory of her last slaughter.
As a concept, Happy Death Day is unapologetically derivative, and that works to its advantage. Moving with the same kind of frisky mischievous of otherwise dumber ‘80s slashers, this high-concept horror from director Christopher Landon is a lightweight delight. It is also aided immensely by Rothe who gives a winning performance as a character who traditionally would be killed off in the first reel, and turns her into a crafty and (eventually) tough survivor who will die hard.
And die she does. Essentially taking the most morbid aspect of Groundhog Day and turning it into a feature-length affair, all of Tree’s demises are played for gallows humor irony, as opposed to the salacious or exploitative voyeurism that this film’s horror forebearers reveled in. Albeit, the film so shamelessly leans into the comedic elements of the splatter that it honestly could have used more of it. Blandly pursuing a PG-13 rating, Happy Death Day might have had more bite if it reached for a Sam Raimi level of dementedness. But by going for the widest possible audience, it is forced to rely on its charm to sell this Scream-meets-Edge of Tomorrow setup.
It is still primarily successful, in a beguilingly dopey way, due to a screenplay by Scott Lobdell, which is the antithesis of original but nevertheless gets the job done by straddling the line between subversive and dimly whacky. There are shots of quirky encounters and strangers on Tree’s repeated walk of shame who will come back as fellow warm bodies as she finds different ways to interact with them, including sometimes quickening their own ends. There is even everyone’s favorite montage of the time-warping protagonist just giving up and enjoying the ride. These are all again aided by Rothe, who gives enough of a star turn to sell the desperation and resigned bemusement of her predicament. The script also gives its best shot at crafting some Mean Girls/Heathers styled one-liners for the sisters living on repeat. Some are groaners, but that only adds to the movie’s affectation.
Hardly a horror classic, especially in a year that has seen several such macabre gems already, Happy Death Day still is a nutty time that should fit the bill for your Friday the 13th or Halloween night out at the theaters. And once there, the film will scratch that itch again. And again. And again.