You only have to see the trailers of Happy Death Day (2017) to know you’re getting yet another send up of Harold Ramis’ comedy classic, Groundhog Day (1993) starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell (we still see you, Before I Fall (2017). Blumhouse Productions knows, however, that you’re savvy and worldly and they wouldn’t just trot out some rehashed Made-For-Teens snorefest. Blumhouse, for all of its issues, has a fairly good idea of what makes horror movies fun without making them insipid.
Tree (Jessica Rothe) is having a rough day. It’s her birthday, and despite her best efforts, it starts off bad and ends up a lot worse. Beginning with a Walk of Shame across the Quad, she perseveres in the only was she can – by being a confident Mean Girl and terrorizing those barely orbiting her own personal star. Her Soror roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine) bears the brunt of her ire, but really anyone getting in her way catches hell. The rest of her day doesn’t go much better and the moment she’s murdered by someone in a creepy baby mask – what the heck kind of mascot can barely hold up its own head and can be punted into the end zone? – it starts all over again.
Before you roll your eyes and think, geez, not this again – this movie has a few tricks up its sleeve. While she always wakes up in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), Tree doesn’t have as much time as she thinks and the list of suspects doesn’t get any shorter. The devil is in the details here and you won’t be bored. No ridiculous infodump, library montage, you’re not insulted with cheap punches and the jump scares are kept to the requisite minimum. This is a PG-13 move so you’ll have your share of swears, but surprisingly little blood. Remember, this is told mostly from Tree’s POV, so being on the receiving end of her own death means she doesn’t get to watch herself bleed out. A lot of the movie’s laughs are at Tree’s expense as she tries to navigate her repeating nightmare while still being thwarted. She’s neither stupid nor naive, and thankfully she’s not self-aware in that way Hollywood makes characters self-aware. She has a job to do and she’s going to get it done, even if it takes the rest of her deaths to figure it out.
As Tree tries to navigate her maddeningly familiar world, her decisions are the decisions we might likely make in her place, which allows for clever twists. We get frustrated when she gets frustrated because her ideas are good ones. For Tree, she doesn’t so much as grow as a person, as grows up. Unlike Bill Murray’s wholly unlikeable weatherman who has to stalk the love of his life to become exactly the kind of man she wants, Tree just has a few personal obstacles to overcome to decide who she wants to be. She treats her restarts as if she’s moving forward, even when she’s not. It’s a weirdly funny, not terribly scary story of redemption. It’s a good watch and you won’t come away disappointed.
Happy Death Day is a horror movie in the sense that the body count is kind of high, even it’s it the same body over and again, but it is a lot of fun. It’s directed by Christopher Landon, who gave me one of my favorite found-footage films, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2017), which I enjoyed for the attention to character and departure from the main story. Happy Death Day is a giddy break from the noise.
Happy Death Day is rated PG-13 for swears, implied nudity, and some pretty terrific and unexpected violence.