Groundhog Day is one of the seminal comedies of the nineties. Understandably loved, perhaps mysteriously recently a Broadway musical, and imitated remarkably few times, 2017 sees the return of a seemingly endless loop, this time in the form of a slasher. The concept is such a natural fit that it’s a surprise that it took almost 24 years to happen. Happy Death Day is here, and it has more than just a stupid-sounding but effective name.
Fundamentally unpleasant student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe, La La Land) wakes up on her birthday in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard, TV’s Fear The Walking Dead). She avoids him, deals with her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine, Shameless), sorority house mother Danielle (Rachel Matthews), and Professor Gregory (Charles Aitken, TV’s Frontier). Late at night, she is murdered by a person wearing the college mascot’s hideous baby mask. She wakes up on the same morning, unmurdered — and will continue to die in some way every day until she finds a way not to be murdered or otherwise killed.
The least likely thing about Happy Death Day — putting aside the possibility of a murder loop — is the name of its protagonist. Not a single person questions why she is named Tree. That they accept this is the single-most messed up thing about a movie in which a woman wakes up each morning feeling the effect of her previous murder. Tree is one of those characters — because a Groundhog Day scenario never happens to a nice person — who needs a lot of self-improvement. It never seems like she deserves to be murdered, but it’s credible that someone would be out to get her. Luckily for Tree, Rothe has a magnetic screen presence that makes her tolerable even as she behaves abominably. Even without her somewhat tragic backstory, Rothe still reveals a sympathetic and compassionate side to the character, and she and Broussard are strong pegs to anchor the film.
As a slasher, Happy Death Day offers a variety of death methods, but as Tree dies instantly in a smash cut each time they may not be bloody enough for true connoisseurs of the genre. By contrast, the relative bloodlessness makes the film palatable for people who are less into gore and creative stabbing and more into the underlying science fiction elements of the concept. It’s a happy medium that fits the film’s tone — brutal but light, with stakes that are both high and low dependent on the individual timeline — while appealing to broad audiences without stooping to a lowest common denominator.
Director Christopher Landon (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) has a feel for material that is never too serious but doesn’t quite tip over to dumbness courtesy of comic book writer Scott Lobdell. It may have a collection of slightly off-brand actors as its support cast but it uses them well and is always engaging without going a twist too far.
Happy Death Day is a somewhat high-concept film that does not care if it is not entirely original. It’s a refreshing piece of light horror that eschews gratuity for the sake of efficient storytelling that occasionally allows for both tongue-in-cheek and knife-in-gut and effectively stands astride multiple genre boundaries.
Happy Death Day opened in Australian cinemas on October 12, 2017.
Directed by: Christopher B. Landon.
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken and Rob Mello.