I’d be shocked to read a review of Happy Death Day movie that didn’t say, “It’s Groundhog Day meets Scream!” There, I’ve said it myself — got that out of the way. It was no doubt pitched to a studio like that, and I bet every person in the room agreed and said, “Wow! Love it!” It must have sounded cheap to make and easy to sell. Surefire.
Whenever we think of a time loop film, we will always think of “Groundhog Day” (1993). Whenever we think of a murderer with a comical mask, we will always think of “Scream” (1996). When I first saw the trailer of this film, it was clear that this Christopher B. Landon movie was inspired by those two 1990s favorites, so this should be a ton of fun to watch.
It was September 18, Monday, Tree’s birthday. That day, a hungover Tree woke up in the dorm room of nerdy boy Carter. Later that night, she was assaulted and murdered by a killer wearing a funny mask representing their college mascot. Then she woke up again in Carter’s room and relived the same day over only to die again at the hands of the same masked murderer. With each loop she experiences, Tree crosses out her suspects one by one until she thought she’s got it all figured out.
The likability of this whole Happy Death Day film depended on the winsome portrayal of Tree by Jessica Rothe. There was something very alluring about her mean girl whose cursed repeated reliving of her birthday (and death day) had humbled the girl down. Her bitchy Tree was played with tongue fully in cheek. With every day relived, she managed to project a different personality that kept the proceedings interesting. But in that sequence of her penultimate reincarnation, she was positively radiant.
The supporting actors played basically one-dimensional caricatures of typical characters encountered in a college. They probably had a lot of fun repeating their lines over and over for each different daily scenario. Israel Broussard was the shy and helpful boy-next-door Carter Davis. Ruby Modine was the quite understanding and patient roommate and nurse Lori Spengler. Rachel Matthews was hilariously over-the-top as sorority head honcho Danielle Bouseman. Charles Aitken was Tree’s professor crush Dr. Gregory Butler. Caleb Spillyards was the rejected beau Tim Bauer.
Well, even surefire things can end up missing by a wide margin. Not in this case, though. It’s a fun little film, more of a giddy romantic-comedy than a splatter-y slasher. (The kills aren’t wet.) Jessica Rothe, who was one of Emma Stone’s colorful apartment mates in La La Land, proves to be a lively and resourceful comedian, which is lucky because she’s in practically every shot. She is in the game as the birthday-girl heroine, “Tree” (short for Katrina? Patricia?), who’s casually contemptuous of everyone but is humanized by being stabbed, strangled, or blown up at the end of every day. Each morning, she wakes with another chance to discover who her stalker is under that pig-baby mask with its one little tooth.
A big problem is that many students have that mask, a mascot. A bigger problem is, who doesn’t want to kill her? Could it be the curly-haired sweetie-cutie, Carter (Israel Broussard), whose bed she wakes up in every new/same day with a colossal hangover — but whom she humiliatingly spurns? (“I’m in a dorm?”) The moist-eyed boy (Caleb Spillyards) she dated and ghosted? The roommate (Ruby Modine) she derides, the sorority alpha-beeyotch (Rachel Matthews) whose boyfriend she hooks up with, the professor (Charles Aitken) she sleeps with, or the professor’s wife, who finds them together in his office with the door closed? And how about that slobbery serial killer (Rob Mello) the police have in custody but isn’t so easy to keep down?
Unlike Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s time-stuttering hero was physically unaffected, Tree wakes up feeling weaker every day, with internal bruising, increasingly bedraggled and desperate. Her port in the storm is Carter, the boy she doesn’t remember going home with but who’s everything a non-sorority snob could want. Please, please don’t let him be the killer, we think. They’re so adorable together.
Apart from its lead actress, the key to the success of a movie like Happy Death Day movie is in the day-to-day variations. Midway through, director Christopher Landon and writer Charles Lobdell (mostly know for X-Mencomics and an associated ’90s TV series) accelerate the action to a screwball frenzy. That’s when the picture comes alive — when it’s almost abstract, with flurries of previously seen images coming at you from new angles as Tree struggles to find her sea legs.
Matthews is ridiculously broad but I grew to like her energy. (She tells Tree that déjà vu means “someone’s thinking about you while they’re masturbating. I get it six times a day.”) Broussard is, as I said, a sweetie-cutie. Happy Death Day film is no big deal, but its Groundhog Day conceit is sort of irresistible, and the genre blend looks right for this age of women looking for stability and empowerment. Tree has to seize the day and a big-ass knife.
The horror situations were all familiar tropes we’ve seen many times in different slasher films before. Yet again there were insane stupid decisions made by the characters to make themselves sitting-duck targets for the killer.