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It’s not ‘Scream,’ but this slasher film version of Groundhog Day is just smart enough to make a bloody old genre look (kind of) new again.
If you’re a fan of classic old-school slasher films, the type that “Scream” skewered so skillfully (even as it made itself into a prime example of one — it was part of the skewering), you know how interchangeable they are: the masked serial killers who keep showing up in the most random possible ways, the fresh and sexy generic youth actors who get carved into mincemeat, the entire thrusting-kitchen-knife atmosphere of “Psycho”-at-the-mall exploitation. So there’s a quite minor kind of literal ingenuity to the premise of Happy Death Day movie a collegiate slasher movie that gathers all the typical tropes and clichés — yes, even the holiday title — into a knowing variation on Groundhog Day: the same nightmare scenario carried on repeatedly, over and over again, with twists. In a genre as debased as this one, that almost counts as inspiration. On the campus of Bayview University, Tree (Jessica Rothe), a sorority party girl gets woken up on her birthday by the rang of the bell tower, only to realize that she’s in a dude’s dorm room. Did she sleep with Carter (Israel Broussard), the curly-haired cute boy whose name she can’t remember?
She’s too hungover to even bother asking. And little does she discover that everything that now happens to her is going to be a repeated clockwork event: the Asian hipster who bursts into her room babbling about her “fine vagine,” the global-warming activist who tries to get her signature, the jock she had a date with who stops to ask why she never texted him back, the office encounter with the a—hole-Brit professor she’s sleeping with, the sorority roommate who gives her a birthday cupcake, the electric blackout that lasts for three seconds, the walk to the frat house where she’s going to have a surprise party, and — of course! — her encounter with the movie’s deranged killer, who dresses in a hoodie and a plastic mask of the school mascot, which looks like the Big Boy icon became a grinning, gaping-eyed, fat-cheeked, one-toothed baby.
Tree tries to fight him back, but it’s no use. He slashes away and kills her. And it’s at that point that she wakes up, on that very same day, all over again. Reset!
It’s her destiny to experience the day once more, hopefully with a better outcome. But apparently Happy Death Day full movie doesn’t work out that way. Tree keeps trying to alter the scenario — make a different move, take a different path — but wherever she goes (a hospital, a road where her car gets stopped by a police officer), the killer always has a way of popping up right then and there to finish her off. Meaning that she’s doomed for good — or privileged — to live that day again until she seizes the day and changes her destiny. It makes Tree, in her way, a singular character in the history of slasher genre: She’s the sleeping-around libertine who gets killed off coldly, and the moral heroine whose goodness protects her, all at the same time.
“Groundhog Day,” an intriguing if somewhat overrated film, was spun out of a celebration of its own smartness. Happy Death Day movie is Groundhog Day film dipped in blood, and if the movie isn’t all that clever, it’s just clever enough to get by. It’s the most recent horror movie from Blumhouse Productions, the company that delivered us the outstanding “Get Out,” as well as “Split,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “The Purge,” and this one, like those last three, should find a target that wants a few teasing “ideas” mixed in with its visceral scares. I wish I could claim that Happy Death Day movie was scary, but its murderous climaxes come with such monotonous precision that there isn’t much suspense to them. Yet the film is a horror-thriller time labyrinth that’s just structurally complex enough to get lost in. It’s a slasher film with one victim elevated to a next-level video game.
Jessica Rothe, who plays Tree, is no blank horror princess. She has a very expressive face (she seems like a high-maintenance Sara Bareilles), and she’s a small emotion tornado who keeps the action spinning. Happy Death Day features an up-to-the-minute version of college mean-girl hatred. The murderer could be anyone in the film, and in the one scene with a “Scream”-ish tinge of meta japery, Tree makes a list of all the potential suspects and spies on them (which lets her learn, among other things, that her text date is actually gay). Happy Death Day movie has, certainly, more red herrings than you can count, which suggests that when you finally think the killer is revealed, he perhaps isn’t; it also has about four endings. Still that all somehow feels unusually appropriate, since the whole film is a rerun with variations. Happy Death Day movie falls short of crazy inspiration, but it isn’t just mushed together — it’s crafted. And that should please its intended audience. The slasher-meets-Groundhog Day idea is so flagrantly derivative it feels new, and more than that it seems right, as to watch almost any slasher movie is to be trapped in a loop of mayhem. The nightmare doesn’t end; it just repeats.