It sounds like the kind of high concept claptrap that left a massive stain on the ’80s. Back before superheroes and shared universes became the thing of massive Hollywood box office, studios concocted outsized ideas designed to peak audience curiosity and breathe life into lagging career fortunes. So when you hear that Happy Death Day is a combination of the old fashioned slasher genre and Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, you’d be right to be wary. Doesn’t sound too promising right?
Well, you’d be wrong, since this delightful little horror reimaging follows Wes Craven’s Scream into a new subgenre of fear. Sure, it still has all the slice and dice you want from a Reagan era fright flick, but it offers it up in a unique manner that makes the standard splatter all the more acceptable (it’s rated PG-13, so the gore is kept to a minimum).
Kudos to director Christopher B. Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse) and writer Scott Lobdell for finding a way to mix things up, macabre wise. Happy Death Day is not perfect, but it’s a hoot while it works. When it falls apart, we still appreciate the attempt to reinvent a genre that only Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) managed to successfully achieve.
Our story centers around Tree (Jessica Rothe, La La Land) a sorority girl who is clearly not in college for the education. One morning, the campus bell tower wakes her up. Again, she finds herself hungover and in the bed of a dude (Israel Broussard) that she may or may not have slept with. As she heads out for the usual Walk of Shame, she runs into various characters, including an Asian hipster, an angry activist, the BMOC that she’s been putting off, and a professor she’s been sleeping with (Charles Aitken). Oh yeah–she also meets a deranged killer in a crazy mask who kills her…
And that it happens all over again. That’s right, just like Bill Murray, Tree wakes up from her murder to the same clang of the clock tower. She meets the same people. Then she meets the same deadly fate. Over and over again. Naturally, she is aware of the repetition, so she tries to alter the events. Sadly, each time she tries, in each different variation, the psycho is waiting for her. Another death. Another bell ring. Another day of trying desperately to avoid a gruesome death.
Though it takes a while to find its rhythm and frequently fudges with its narrative to keep the core gimmick intact, Happy Death Day is still an enjoyable riff on the last girl/masked murderer motif that got its big break when John Carpenter put a William Shatner mask on lumbering death machine named Michael Myers. This is Friday the 13th with a reset button (and only one victim). It’s also a stunt that strains to maintain its inventiveness.
Lobdell is a comic book scribe, and the episodic nature of the screenplay helps maintain the endless loop concept. Landon, on the other hand, doesn’t find enough ways to keep things fresh. In Groundhog Day, there was a sense of discovery in what Phil Connors was experiencing. Once he fell into the groove, he got a chance to expand and explore his character’s flaws and funny business. Here, Rothe is locked in, the requirements of a scary movie messing with other opportunities that present themselves. Tree does discover that she’s not the nicest of people, but her past should have indicated that without the butcher knife epiphany.
Still, Happy Death Day is a treat. It’s not scary or gruesome, but it finds a way to work within a movie manner long since tapped out.