Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is birthday time for “Tree” (Jessica Rothe), a college student and sorority girl who pretty much epitomizes the worst of those stereotypes. She’s awaken from a drunken night in the bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), an old classmate. So college.
Her birthday takes her through the basic minutiae of any other day: Walks across campus, house meetings with her equally witchy sorority members, and a visit to see her professor for after-hours study. Being her birthday, it culminates with her going out to celebrate…only she doesn’t make it because she’s slain by a masked buck-toothed, baby-faced assailant.
But the next day, Tree wakes up—in the same bed of Carter’s—to the same alarm. The cycle repeats itself, with Tree dying again and again and again to the same assailant. To get to tomorrow, she’s got to solve the mystery as to why someone wants to kill her and possibly reexamine herself while doing so.
Starting like every other piece that will be posted, you can’t watch Happy Death Day without thinking about Groundhog Day. The time loop narrative is well-worn at this point, but at the same time, it is a narrative that honestly always seems to have some juice. Throw in a murder mystery with repeating the same day over and over, and Happy Death Day makes for a perfectly enjoyable movie that doesn’t care to ascend to lofty heights but rather content to be a fun, in-the-moment diversion of time.
Blumhouse Productions, the predominantly horror movie studio which sometimes whiffs and other times knocks grand slams with its horror movies (but always does so on a budget designed to maximize profit) is the home of Happy Death Day. Fright-wise, their latest installment pales in comparison to their own recent productions such as Get Out and Split. Happy Death Day itself is only a horror for, say, the first 30 minutes of runtime. While there are some extremely basic yet passably effective jump scares set up by director Christopher Landon (Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), Happy Death Day evolves more into a mystery/thriller and even comedy the longer it goes on.
It’s actually not as bad as it sounds. Horror-wise the PG-13 rating, in this case, does sanitize any substantial scares that could have been present (the trailer did no favors, either). On the mystery front, however, Landon and writer Scott Lobdell do present enough characters with legitimate motivations to offing Tree to keep the audience guessing until the actual reveal. The reveal itself, even for a film that is as self-aware as this, is a little underwhelming and even disappointing. But as it is often said, the journey is better than the destination. A caveat, though: Like Groundhog Day, do not expect any proper explanation as to why this day repeats.
Like that film, the day existed to serve as a redemption of sorts for its lead character. The same approach follows here. Despite the short runtime, writer and director do a good job in delving into Tree’s backstory and allowing her to grow organically in the midst of a bizarre scenario. This allows lead actress Jessica Rothe to showcase her burgeoning talent. Rothe does a lot, transforming from insufferable to comedic to emotional and bringing the audience in and along each moment of the way. She pairs nicely with the likable Israel Broussard; their friendship creating an unforeseen emotional aspect that keeps Happy Death Day enough on the straight and narrow path and providing Tree a reason worth living for. As for the rest of the cast, most fall into sometimes entertaining but mostly par-for-the-course side characters who slide in and out as the pieces in Tree’s day of death are altered.
In a specific subgenre in which every movie always gets compared to the Bill Murray original classic, Happy Death Day doesn’t reinvent the loop. But, it does add a fun wrinkle or two within it.
Photo credits go to joblo.com, newsweek.com, and commonsensemedia.org.
For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com.
Follow the Movie Man @MovieManJackson