Happy Death Day is the kind of unabashedly stupid title that makes me leery of a film–a half-joke you can just hear spoken with heavy emphasis on the middle word and an entreating laugh that thinks itself more clever than it is. Add to that a premise that attempts to put a spin on a more original film–in this case, “dude, what if Groundhog Day was a slasher movie!?”–and my expectations going in were further cranked down, almost to the level of disposable parody (see: Scary Movie, or rather, don’t). So I’m pleased to report that this film came as something of a pleasant surprise. Not everything about it works–it has its share of derivative, saccharine, or unfortunately hollow moments–and if it were even an ounce more cynical than it is, it’d fall flat on its face. Instead, though, there’s enough awkward charm to make it a pretty enjoyable movie for the PG-13 crowd.
The plot follows the somewhat distractingly-named Tree (Jessica Rothe), a self-absorbed sorority girl at a Louisiana university on her birthday, September 18th. The day begins waking up with a hangover in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), a sheepish stranger, and ends on the wrong end of a knife wielded by a killer in a creepy baby-face mask. But rather than drifting off to the great beyond, the murdered Tree wakes up once again in Carter’s dorm room on September 18th. With no explanation available for what turns out to be a repeating reset button, Tree eventually realizes the only way to break the cycle is to avoid/unmask her killer, but doing so means taking a serious look at her life and the person she’s become.
The addition of a Scream-like whodunnit to the “terrible person has to redo things til they get it right” plot of Groundhog Day is actually pretty clever–the audience has as many chances as the heroine to examine the details of her day looking for clues. Screenwriter Scott Lobdell and director Christopher Landon wring a lot of energy out of the conceit by offering up a bevy of interesting suspects–the stalker (Caleb Spillyards), the married boyfriend (Charles Aitken), the disgruntled rival (Rachel Matthews), and so on–but other than tossing out red-herrings willy-nilly, they never really commit to the inherent mystery. The ultimate reveal feels a little limp-wristed as a result; the thriller part of the film’s DNA would have been far more satisfying had it been set up a little more carefully.
But the other half of the film’s hybrid–basically a teen comedy–is where it shines. This is in no small part thanks to Rothe’s appeal as an actress; she’s able to sell Tree’s transition from unlikable stereotype to actual person better than the script often deserves and I’m interested to see her take on a more mature role. Watching her take out her intelligent frustration at her situation–and the resulting bemusement of those around her–becomes the reason to watch the film, and if there’s nothing particularly original about that process, there are enough moments that are genuinely fun to keep up interest until the obvious romantic ending. Because the film is balanced this way it is in terms of tone, the slasher aspect plays in service of the coming-of-age story, a literal way for Tree to face the consequences of her immaturity and to try on different identities and tactics for dealing with her world. The horror-as-metaphor isn’t as sophisticated as something like It Follows, but it’s also not leaning as hard into horror as that film does–it’s hard to imagine even younger audiences being really frightened by anything here because ultimately that’s not the point.
Instead, the most telling moment about what the filmmakers are doing comes as the camera pans away to the credits. As we leave them behind, Carter actually namedrops Groundhog Day and Tree says she’s never heard of it. The moment’s kind of wincingly self-aware for those of us saddled with the baggage of the film’s heritage, but it also points out we are not who the film is for or about. This is a film about young adulthood for a younger audience and it wears its influences like a teenager wearing a borrowed suit to a first job interview. If you’ve been around the block, you know the work can be done better, but if you’re looking for energy, levity, and enthusiasm it might well be worth it to hire the kid.