Published Oct 13, 2017Happy Death Day is a bit of Halloween fluff, a slasher twist on Groundhog Day in which party girl heroine Tree (Jessica Rothe) is brutally murdered over and over again. It's a silly and fun little romp, with red herrings and twists abound. Although it has issues with pacing and suffers from its decision to not include any real scares (to market it as a horror film seems almost disingenuous when it's mostly a straight comedy), its clever script and likeable lead make it incredibly entertaining.
When Tree Gelbman wakes up on the morning of her birthday in a dorm room with a dude whose name she can't remember (turns out it's Carter, played by Israel Broussard), she thinks a killer hangover is the worst of her problems. A series of events unfold that will soon become repetitive touchstones — a student activist asks for her signature, the sprinklers go off on a couple making out on the grass and a spurned jock asks why she hasn't been returning any of his texts.
On her way to a sorority party, Tree is ogled by a strange weirdo wearing a mask of their school mascot, a chubby-cheeked baby. She trips and is caught, and the weirdo, wielding a knife, brutally slashes her throat.
And then Tree wakes up again, in the same dorm room. The student activist asks her the same question, the sprinklers go off, the jock asks her about the texts. Baffled, poor Tree is once again murdered that night, this time at her own birthday party. When she wakes up again in the same strange boy's dorm room, she comes to the horrifying conclusion that she is doomed to repeat the day of her death over and over until she can find her killer, before he kills her again. And again. And again.
It's a derivative premise to be sure, seen in countless other time-loop films, but the film has too much fun and cheek for the setup to feel as repetitive as it is. A campy montage in which Tree investigates who could have murdered her, spying on possible suspects and eliminating them when they have alibis as she's being stabbed, or strangled, or bludgeoned, is a particular highlight.
The film isn't particularly scary. We don't actually see much of Tree's many, many deaths, the camera cutting away with rigid precision the moment the knife strikes — and in that, we lose some of the tension and stakes, despite Tree being a likeable protagonist, and Rothe giving her personality in spades. The film eventually invents some limitations in the wake of lasting injuries (dying over and over again apparently makes Tree weaker) and a secondary goal in which she realizes she needs to start becoming a better person, but they feel tacked on, the result of some last-minute rewrites. The last act, after the breezy first two, feels like a rushed series of twists and turns, but despite not making a lot of sense, it's adrenaline-pumping enough to be exciting.
The script is smarter than your average teen slasher, even if it's sometimes eye-rollingly on the nose. Yet, it gets in more than a few great barbs at sorority girl culture (lead sister Danielle, played by Rachel Matthews, is a horrible, hilarious nightmare), genre spoofs, and one surprisingly subtle, dark joke about campus rape culture, suggesting Happy Death Day is as self-aware as it is fun.