Movie Review: “Happy Death Day” (PG-13)
If you experience a bit of deja vu when watching the Jason Blum-produced horror hit “Happy Death Day,” there’s certainly a reason for that. It’s because this is essentially a retelling of “Groundhog Day” set to a backdrop that owes just as much to the likes of “Scream” and “Mean Girls.”
While “Happy Death Day” is actually a little bit better than the trailer would have you believe, it could have been a whole lot more had it only taken its high-concept premise and injected a bit more creativity into the proceedings. Movies like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Source Code” also owe a debt to the aforementioned Bill Murray-headlined comedy classic, but those pictures also managed to bring their own sense of identity to the table. “Happy Death Day,” not so much. In fact, the makers of this movie appear to think they’ll simply get a pass by freely acknowledging that they blatantly ripped off “Groundhog Day,” and that’s a bit irritating. That said, there are aspects of this picture that are actually pretty entertaining.
In “Happy Death Day,” mean girl college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up hungover in the bed of a fellow student she can barely remember. As she rudely storms out of this college student’s dorm room and goes about her day of privilege and crapping on less important folk, Tree’s evening comes to a grinding halt when she’s ultimately murdered by a mysterious figure in a creepy-looking mask. The next morning, Tree awakens in that same college student’s bed only to repeat the same day over. In fact, it appears as if she’s destined to relive this particular day for all eternity. Lucky for Tree, her memory is intact with each passing do-over, therefore she’s able to piece together clues that might lead her to discover the identity of her killer, thereby breaking a curse that would be perfectly at home in “The Twilight Zone.” Along the way, Tree does a little soul searching and realizes that perhaps she hasn’t been treating the people in her life the way she herself would want to be treated.
To be completely honest, the first 15 minutes of “Happy Death Day” are so obnoxious and labored that it’s enough to make you want to walk out of the movie. But then the film settles down a bit, and for a great deal of its running time, it coasts along on the pure charm and surprising likability of star Jessica Rothe. It isn’t long before it’s revealed that deep beneath that nasty, superficial exterior, there’s a nice person waiting to break out. It just takes living the same day over and over to make Tree realize what a bitch she’s been to the folks she should care about most.
Tree’s arc, as simple as it is, proves to be considerably more effective than the time-loop gimmick, the horror element, and the whodunnit aspect of this film, and again, that’s mostly a testament to Rothe’s ability as a performer. In addition to typical horror-movie cliches, there’s quite a bit of stupid stuff going on in this picture including a dumb sequence in which Tree is pulled over by a cop for speeding. What’s more, “Happy Death Day” does itself a bit of a disservice by going the PG-13 route. There are times when the picture feels a bit watered down and trapped by its tame rating. That said, there are certainly fun moments here too, and yes, “Happy Death Day” even offers up a bit of heart. Look no further then Tree’s evolving bond with a fellow college student and a re-connection with her estranged father.
As far as slasher movies with a soul go, “Happy Death Day” hasn’t got anything on the grossly underappreciated “The Final Girls,” but it’s substantially more entertaining than PG-13 rated horror fare like “Friend Request.” And it’s clear that Jason Blum is a genius when it comes to marketing movies and putting quality projects together without spending obscene amounts of money. He did it with M. Night Shaymalan’s recent resurgence (see “The Visit” and “Split”), and he did it earlier this year with Jordan Peele’s sensational thriller, “Get Out.” “Happy Death Day” isn’t isn’t the same league as the previously mentioned movies, but you could do a hell of a lot worse this Halloween season.