Following in the footsteps of the sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow, it seems like the horror flick Happy Death Day is officially turning Groundhog Day into a premise that can fit most any genre. Of course, all three of those films utilize the premise of deja vu repetition of the same day as comedic set pieces that allow the lead to gradually change over the course of their repetitive days. This time, that lead is a sorority girl named Tree (Jessica Rothe). Yes, her name is tree. No specifics on type, but she seems like a strong Willow. Determined, yet guarded by an outward display of leaves. In this case, the leaves are a snippy attitude that disrespects the people around her. A good/bad start for a character to grow from.
There are so many ways a character like Tree could go wrong. Early on she dismisses people all the nice folks around her and is seemingly sympatico with those who are using her, whether it be the professor she’s sleeping with (Charles Aitken) or the sorority house leader that feeds off negative energy (Rachel Matthews). Screenwriter Scott Lobdell got his start writing for comics, mainly X-Men. He’s a guy who knows sci-fi concepts and how to weave endearing if harsh characters into them. That’s on display in a more mechanical form in Happy Death Day, though there are plenty of points where it seems like an older man trying hard to get down the language of modern youths. In the wrong hands, Happy Death Day could turn Tree into an unbearable walking cliche with sexist and dumbfounding undertones.
Luckily, Happy Death Day made the wise decision to cast Jessica Rothe. There’s so much youthful vibrancy in her performance that truly evolves over the course of her ordeal. Her chemistry with Carter (Israel Broussard) – the young man she went home with the night before her repetitive dilemma – is initially scoffing but believably turns her into a resourcefully endearing final girl who’s also the only murder victim. Her growth from stuck up asshole to decent human being is enjoyable, especially as the tragedies of her life come to light through her behavior and subtle bits of physical acting. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog or Tom Cruise in Tomorrow, she gets us to go from being turned off by her holier than though attitude to rooting for her to resolve this conflict and get her reality in control.
The rules of Happy Death Day aren’t too determined. We never do find out the reasoning why Tree repeats this day over and over. Which is honestly a plus. After all, Groundhog Day worked because we didn’t know why Bill Murray kept repeating the same day over and over. That reveal was honestly one of the few weak points of Edge of Tomorrow. This story is firmly about the actual character journey, not the reasoning behind the repetition. How much would this quick poppy movie drag if it stopped dead to explain the method behind the repetition? It was a smart decision to keep the reveal toward the killer, though the reveal itself is a bit telegraphed when most of the suspects that matter are eliminated pretty much by the halfway point.
Then again, the menace and believability of that killer are pretty subdued by the rather goofy mask used here. While Happy Death Day is a comedy horror film, the one straight horror element they’re trying to keep consistent is that killer. Donning the mascot of the college setting as the serial slasher face makes enough sense, given Tree is under constant pressure from her school environment to fit a certain standard. Yet, the actual idea of any college having a baby as a mascot is honestly stretching the suspension of disbelief more than the whole “repeating the same day” premise. Any time this killer shows up, whatever menace we’re supposed to feel is sunk pretty hard. Mask designer Tony Gardner is best known as the man behind the iconic Scream mask, though the genius of that was how authentic and off the shelf it felt. Happy Death Day feels far more like a Hollywood inauthentic mask trying to create something iconic, which just ends up making it stand out awkwardly.
Director Christopher Landon has shown slow yet steady improvement from his previous films Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. It’s clear that his interests are in interpersonal comedy between the scares and his most effective moments usually are the visual ways we attach to the characters. For Happy Death Day, it’s making subtle differences within the repetitive nature of the story. A simple slightly different angle on one scene we’ve seen half a dozen times gives us a fresh perspective that has us discover more about the side characters and potential outcomes with Tree. Well, at least in theory. Again, the reveal is easy to figure out after a certain point. Though I won’t go into detail.
Happy Death Day is definitely what one would call fluff. Clever fluff, but ultimately fluff within the horror genre. There’s nothing wrong with being fluff if done well and Happy Death Day is definitely a fluffy confection. There’s a solid sense of humor throughout and a self awareness that makes it slightly above the average snoozer of a slasher. Think of it as a throwback to the tone of the obscurer holiday centered slashers that came in the wake of Halloween in the 80s like Happy Birthday to Me or April Fool’s Day. A lot of the flaws are put off to the side thanks to Jessica Rothe. If Happy Death Day does nothing else, it’s give her a spotlight to potentially craft into bigger roles. Or at the very least, make her a recurring scream queen for the Blumhouse arsenal.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Repetitive Wake Up Calls
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