It’s hard for movies about jerks caught in time loops and becoming better people to escape the shadow of “Groundhog Day.” But with enough cleverness and originality, a time loop picture can overcome the familiarity of its trappings. “Edge of Tomorrow,” another entry in the genre, built its own identity by throwing the formula into a chaotic whirlwind of sci-fi spectacle. “Happy Death Day” attempts to do the same by transplanting “Groundhog Day” into slasher flick territory.
Its unlikely hero is Tree (Jessica Rothe), a cruel university student who enjoys her position at the top of the social food chain. We first meet her on the morning of her birthday, when she wakes up with a bad hangover in the dorm room of a stranger, Carter (Israel Broussard). After bailing on Carter, she goes through the rest of her day mistreating her “friends” and sorority sisters, including her meek roommate Lori (Ruby Modine). That night, Tree ends up walking to a frat party alone. Naturally, she gets stabbed to death by killer wearing a baby mask.
Tree wakes up gasping — was she dreaming? We know she’s not, but Tree goes through her day again, startled by her ability to predict everything that’s happening around her. She makes it to the party this time, though, by taking a different route, only to be killed in a frat house. When Tree wakes up again on the same day, she realizes she’s stuck in a time loop. With Carter’s help, she realizes the only way to get out will be to unmask her killer.
“Happy Death Day” plays with a lot of familiar horror tropes, yet to call it horror would be misdirection. After all, there’s only so much gore a slasher can show in the realm of PG-13. The kills aren’t that bloody, and there’s hardly any tension, which makes it an easy watch for those who generally stray from scary movies.
“Happy Death Day” leans toward comedic sensibilities, delivering some clever sequences when Tree spends each repeat of her day scoping out the suspects before being killed again. She also gets new chances to make amends with Carter and her sisters, though the film is often more sappy than sweet during these moments.
Jessica Rothe is a highly expressive lead and even a budding action star when sticky situations arise. Even when she’s supposed to be inconsiderate and selfish, Rothe carries a likable charm that hints at Tree’s better nature within. “Happy Death Day” clunkily stabs at introspection with heavy-handed dialogue spelling out the film’s themes, but Rothe’s performance successfully overcomes the occasionally stilted writing.
Without a particularly strong vision, “Happy Death Day” doesn’t set itself apart from formula, choosing to do little more than retread old groundhog haunts. Director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell attempt to up the ante by revealing that Tree’s injuries from her past deaths have repercussions that last after her resets. She’s supposedly getting weaker, which gives the film a ticking clock element, as she will eventually be unable to fight off her killer. Strangely enough, this twist doesn’t come into play, and it’s all but forgotten when Tree starts kicking butt in the finale.
“Happy Death Day” is sometimes clever, but more often than not derivative. Still, it has its pleasures, thanks to its charismatic lead, and if you can get past the deja vu, you might have a killer time.
- “Happy Death Day”
- Rating: PG-13
- Running Time: 96 minutes
- Score: 3/5 stars