Happy Death Day is a slasher movie with a clever premise, an engaging lead, and some mildly clever twists. The setup is sometimes wasted on derivative horror movie tropes (especially in its first half) but, overall, the movie is enjoyable (and pretty light on the gore. The kills are relatively tame, even for a PG-13 film).
Tree (Jessica Rothe) is a selfish, arrogant college student. She spends her days treating people poorly and ignoring anything that could be important in her life. The film takes place on her birthday. She wakes up in the dorm room of a guy she does not know, has a few unpleasant encounters with people she sort of pretends to like and ignores her Dad’s phone calls. After being firmly established as an unpleasant person, she walks by herself to a party at a frat house and is accosted by a masked assailant who murders her. Then, she wakes up at the beginning of the same day with a complete memory of what happened. Eventually, she begins trying to figure out who her killer is (or will be) before she is murdered again. And again. And again.
Happy Death Day (90 minutes before the end credits) is clearly inspired by the 1993 Bill Murray comedy classic Groundhog Day. That film is about a man who keeps living the same day over and over until he learns to be a better person. This experience may help Tree become a better person (if she survives it), but her main goal is to wake up the next day. Her becoming a better person is inconsequential to the film’s story.
I will give writer Scott Lobdell and director Christopher Landon (who wrote the second, third, fourth and fifth Paranormal Activity movies and directed the fifth one) credit for a couple of good twists on the concept. For instance, every time Tree wakes up, she feels the effects of her most recent death. Not much is done with the idea, but it is still pretty cool. Unfortunately, the characters are derivative of countless other teen slasher movies. The entire supporting cast just exists to be suspects. Luckily, Tree becomes likable due to a very enjoyable performance.
Jessica Rothe is an actress previously unknown to me (even though she did have a small role in La La Land). Many horror movies cast relative unknowns because the genre sells the movie. It does not need stars to succeed at the box-office. Since horror movies allow its actors to show a whole bunch of different emotions (anger, fear and sadness chief among them) they can be used as a calling card of sorts for up-and-coming actors. It is a highlight reel of their abilities.
That is exactly how Jessica Rothe uses Happy Death Day. She not only gets to play anger, fear and sadness; she also gets to play regret, guilt, love and even some comedy. I think she is in every single scene and, through sheer force of will, she makes her character likable. The dialogue is nothing special, but she sells the heck out of even the dumbest of lines. I hope she gets more opportunities off of this.
The first half of the film made me think I was in for a routine slasher movie with a gimmick attached to it. And that is kind of what Happy Death Day is. But there is enough twistiness in the writing to keep things interesting. Add in an energetic lead performance and you have a slightly above average teen slasher movie.
3 out of 5
Jessica Rothe as Tree Gelbman
Israel Broussard as Carter Davis
Ruby Modine as Lori Spengler
Charles Aitken as Gregory Butler
Rob Mello as Joseph Tombs
Rachel Matthews as Danielle Bouseman
Blaine Kern III as Nick Sims
Caleb Spillyards as Tim Bauer
Directed by Christopher Landon
Written by Scott Lobdell