Director: Christopher Landon
Runtime: 96 minutes
It’s Groundhog Day with murders. The film is the premise; the premise is the film. Do you want to see Groundhog Day with murders? Answer that question, and you’ll know if you want to see this film.
In Happy Death Day, college student Tree (Jessica Rothe) finds herself stuck in a traumatic looping day—her birthday, no less—that unfailingly ends with her murder at the hands of a mysterious masked killer. We’ve seen the time loop device play out countless times in the cinema, but this film’s take on it is at least somewhat fresh in its execution. Granted, after seeing our main character navigate her first day through various college movie tropes and distinctively cartoonish characters, you might start to think that watching this setting loop continuously over the course of 90 minutes might be what hell feels like. Thankfully, the film plows through each subsequent loop with enough self-awareness and reckless abandon that it doesn’t feel like a wholly derivative experience.
In fact, seeing how well the looping fits the pace of a slasher film, you can appreciate the appropriateness of the premise. An endless loop of college tropes and murder is not too different from the regular slasher film stock. The film is unapologetic about exploiting this fact; it knows that it’s a knock-off of Groundhog Day with a thin horror veneer, and it leans into the freedom of not having to take itself seriously whenever it can.
The satirical tone does start to unravel a little at the back end of the film, where it flip-flops so heavily between commitment to the bit and flagrant absurdism that it is prone to give the viewer whiplash. The film struggles to decide whether it wants to be Tucker and Dale or Scary Movie, and its pivotal moments of sincerity fall flat because of this confusion. While the commitment to satirising both the horror genre and Groundhog Day suggests that some level of genuine heartfelt resolution is required to sell the joke, there’s not much point to character development and narrative resolution if they aren’t earned by the characters and story. Happy Death Day tends to offer up its genuine moments like a sleight of hand trick, which makes such moments feel too much like items being crossed off a checklist.
Still, there’s enough to the film that its narrative failings are forgivable. Even when the script over-reaches for a clever quip or a badass line, it just adds to the “throwing spaghetti at the wall” whimsy of the whole experience. Happy Death Day is a trade-off; if you want to see Groundhog Day with murders, you have to sit through your share of fratboy jokes, unnecessary plot twists, and college parties full of extras nodding indiscriminately.
Jessica Rothe (La La Land) is an excellent choice for the lead. She revels in the insanity of the film, and she’s at her best when the shackles are off. Some of her character’s more genuine moments feel unconvincing, but she does what she can with the script. Her character is an undeniably horrible person, yet she remains likeable throughout, which is difficult enough to pull off in the best of circumstances.
Director Christopher Landon has a decent resume of horror flicks, and his competence as a director solidifies the film’s watchability. The action is handled well enough, and it adapts seamlessly to the needs of the film; visceral horror gives way to effective visual comedy as the film starts to explore the premise in more depth. The evident commitment to securing a PG-13 rating does leave the impact of the horror ringing a touch hollow, but I can’t say that any amount of gore would have improved the film by a great margin.
Bottom line, it’s a fun, imperfect film. There’s a lot there, and a lot of it works. Would I watch it again? Probably not. But I got what I came for. If you’re interested in watching Groundhog Day with murders, then you can trust that Happy Death Day is exactly what it says on the tin.