Happy Death Day repeats a very familiar pattern for a film, the deja vu conundrum that was so prominently well done in Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow. It knows its source material so well that it even sites Groundhog Day in a very 4th wall meta moment towards the end of the film. What it loses in originality, it gains in execution. The movie exudes a confidence in its storytelling and manages to spin the same scenes repeatedly, without feeling stale. Part of the power of this way of storytelling is that you are watching each scene for the subtle differences is each pass.
This story revolves around Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a prototype pretty sorority girl who awakes in a strange dorm room after a hard night of partying. It just so happens to be her birthday and the first act follows her interactions with all of her important contacts: the plucky and lucky dorm dweller, the blind date guy who she has been avoiding, the bitchy sorority house president, the put-upon roommate, the med school professor who she’s having an affair with, and so on… all leading to a fateful scene when she is attacked, and killed by a baby-masked stranger in a hoodie. And then she awakens, in the same dorm room, with the same annoying phone ringtone, and she gets to relive her birthday and as she realizes that she’s going through all the same motions again, tries to avoid her fate at the hands of the baby-masked killer.
If you’ve seen Groundhog’s Day or Edge of Tomorrow, the pattern will be familiar. The first time through is the dry run. The second time through is where the confusion sets in. By the third pass, Tree is now convinced of her plight and comes up with her strategy. She realizes that in order to stop the cycle, she has to find out who the killer is, and kill them before they kill her. Open up the loop! Also characteristic of this type of film is that our protagonist starts out as a very flawed character, unlikeable, even. Tree is a bitch. Or at least she starts out that way. Her story arc shows her getting self-aware, and realizing that in each successive cycle, she’s atoning for her past personal flaws. And, as an audience, we really warm up to her.
Jessica Rothe is blessed for an actor in that she has a really expressive face and brings a great physicality to her performance. Her transformation from sorority mean girl to awakened heroine benefits greatly from her expressions and body language. Each time she repeats her condition, the experience taxes her body, and though it’s better than being dead, her eroding condition suggests to her that this is not an indefinite cycle. Enough times dying, and one time she probably will be dead for good. Israel Broussard, who plays Carter, her party date/chaperone is charmingly done… and before the plot really gets rolling, you could sense he had a much larger role to play. And each successive scene with both Carter and Tree becomes more endearing.
From the opening Universal production crawl, which stops and starts three times, the director Christopher Landon (most notably a screenwriter for the Paranormal Activity movies) assuredly sticks to the premise, and keeps the script and pacing tight. This is by far his best work to date. This is a PG-13 movie, and is pitched to a broader young audience. While not particularly bloody, it does provide a bunch of jump scares, and is moderate on the scary scale. Moreover, the movie is light, and fun, with a great character to follow in Tree. I half wonder if the writers were trying to make symbolic use of her name, but I can’t quite peg the metaphor. The movie is slightly marred by an unnecessary “second” ending, which tries a bit of switcheroo, but I preferred the more conventional first ending and found it more satisfying. That aside, Happy Death Day is certainly worth watching, and rewatching, and rewatching… at least once. For those of you just dipping your toe into the horror genre, this would be a terrific gateway film.