For a carefree sorority girl who seems to have it all, Tree Gelbam (Jessica Rothe) is having a very bad day. It starts with a savage hangover, her head pounding as she wakes up disoriented in a dorm room with a sweet but awkward young man, Carter (Israel Broussard), who she can’t remember from the night before. She hightails out his room to the campus quad, where she’s harangued by a signature-peddling activist and an overzealous suitor, before marking her way back to the sorority house where she faces down her catty housemates. She gets chocolate milk spilled on her, she’s being hounded with calls from her father, she gets busted in the act with her married lover, and at the end of it all, a shadowy figure in a super creepy mascot mask tracks her down and brutally kills her. But here’s the thing; Tree isn’t just having the worst day of her life, she’s having it a lot.
Groundhog Day by way of the post-modern slasher, Happy Death Day sends Tree spiraling through the same terrible day over and over, until she can discover the identity of her masked killer and find her way out of the cycle. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones director Christopher Landon (who also penned the scripts for Paranormal Activity 2, 3, and 4) reteams with Blumhouse for Happy Death Day, and working from a script by comic book writer Scott Lobdell, he turns out a lean but entertaining entry in the time loop genre, with a slasher twist.
Happy Death Day will feel familiar, but that’s by design. It’s not the film has been done before — to the contrary, it’s one of those great ideas you’re surprised no one’s tapped into yet — but Landon is knowingly playing with familiar tropes of both time loop and slasher movies. The film will no doubt earn some comparisons to Scream, but while it shares some DNA with Wes Craven’s iconic horror franchise, especially the collegiate Scream 2, Happy Death Day isn’t so much meta-horror as it is self-aware. Landon isn’t making commentary on the genre itself, but he is playing on audience expectations, and he shows sound judgment on when to indulge familiar tropes and when to subvert them.
That quality manifests best in Tree’s evolution from a typical slasher victim (and pretty awful person) into a battle-hardened survivor determined to find a path out of her personal hell. In the first cycle, Tree makes all the familiar wrong choices, indulging every vice and wicked whim, and literally walking down a dimly lit path we all know leads to doom. But as she repeats the day over and over again, she starts putting the pieces together, making wiser decisions that lead more interesting and unexpected outcomes. Tree is an unusual slasher heroine, cast more in the mold of the characters that usually get killed off second or third in a slasher movie — the pretty, promiscuous mean girl — and Rothe delivers a spirited, agile performance, leaning into her nastier qualities with an undeniable charm.
The catch is the PG-13 rating, which makes the film feeling a bit too broad and will almost certainly leave genre-hardened horror fans wanting more. The time loop premise sets the stage for Happy Death Day to come up with a laundry list of inventive kills, but the film never follows through on that potential. Instead, the kills are bloodless, off-screen, and frankly rather uninspired. Happy Death Day is fun enough that its tameness isn’t a deal breaker, but folks looking for a big bloody return for the slasher genre would be best advised to set their sights elsewhere. That said, the killer’s baby-faced mask is a refreshing and creepy design, and Landon does a fine job of milking Tree’s daily deaths for suspense, and sometimes comedy, even if the film never tips over into terror.
Lean and tightly-paced, running a smartly trim 96 minutes, Happy Death Day never loses steam or wears out its welcome; a distinct danger when you’re putting an abrasive character through the ringer over and over again. A wickedly charming performance from Rothe and snappy direction from Landon keeps the energy and entertainment factor high, even though some of the less tightly scripted parts. There are elements of the story that ultimately feel laid in purely as a means of misdirection for audiences that are increasingly good at solving puzzles, but there are just as many plot details that pay off beautifully with surprising ends. Some story points deserve better answers, but the answers we do get rarely disappoint.
Breezy and Happy Death Day may not herald the return of traditional slasher films, but it is an energetic and engaging piece of poppy PG-13 horror, made with a clear knowledge and affection for the genre.