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There have been 12 Friday the 13th movies, 9 A Nightmare on Elm Street ones and 10 other terror tales in the franchise of Halloween, and that we haven’t counted upcoming reboot of Blumhouse. In short, loving horror can be something akin to Groundhog Day, and it makes sense then that Blumhouse has also backed Happy Death Day film. Becoming a decent person requires an awful lot of dying, Happy Death Day movie is a snappy horror-comedy with a gentle romantic spine.
Happy Death Day movie is about Tree (Jessica Rothe) as a selfish sorority sister who’s mean to her perfectly nice roommate and much too friendly with her married professor. On her birthday, she wakes up in a strange man’s dorm room of a guy (Israel Broussard) after a supposed one night stand. She then stumbles through her day until her surprise party that night where she is brutally murdered by a masked attacker. Unfortunately, she’s about to experience this particular day again for multiple times. She has to find the murder to end this nightmare, and with Tree’s personal history, there is an Agatha Christie-esque list of candidates including a snubbed suitor, the wife of a professor who may have been teaching her a few non-curriculum tricks and pretty much everyone else she has ever met.
Niftily paced and tight as a chokehold, the script delivers just enough variation to hold our interest. The means of Tree’s expirations are unoriginal and not especially scary, but Christopher Landon as the movie’s director has done a nice job to maintain a breezy momentum while she wakes, runs, croaks and repeats. With each resurrection, she’s in slightly worse shape, but marginally better-tempered giving Rothe more room to deepen the character and arc from unsympathetic victim to loving girlfriend.
Rothe is inexhaustible and funny with Israel Broussard being a perfect foil as her bemused, sweetly bland love interest. Still, it’s the newcomer Rachel Matthews playing Danielle as the snippy sorority president being the natural comedian. Encased in preppy separates and armed with withering put-downs, Danielle is every bit as deadly as any campus killer.
Despite a respectable number of plot twists, Happy Death Day movie is no Agatha Christie, and horror fans hoping for another Scream are unlikely to get many chills from its frequent and perfunctory kills. The scariest thing in Happy Death Day is the killer’s mask that looks like a malevolent, chipmunk-cheeked infant. Still, the movie boasts a handful of clever lines and sight gags, such as Tree tapping obliviously on her phone as a frat boy goes into death throes behind her. Rothe gives a winning comic performance fully committing to Tree’s supermodel strut and incredulous hauteur. This girl is shocked that anyone would be insensitive enough to offer her a carb-heavy birthday treat, let alone threaten her life.
Unfortunately, the movie redeems Tree through the revelation of a sappy backstory and a soapy tête-à-tête with her dad (Jason Bayle). While it’s nice to see her learning to use her weird plight for good, nothing about that process is surprising, and a couple of scenes mimic Groundhog Day almost too closely to count as homage.
If only this movie were as smart as its inspiration, but its plot is woven from college stereotypes with nasty sorority sisters, oafish frat bros, a McDreamy professor and flustered nerds who occasionally blossom into love interests. The genius of the Groundhog Day film premise is that its hero discovers the unpredictability latent in the predictable. Happy Death Day movie is directed with vim, vigor, and heart by Christopher Landon and boasts a winning central performance from Rothe, and if the result may not destined for Groundhog Day-style classic status, it is a huge amount of fun.