Happy Death Day Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine. Directed by Christopher Landon. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
Movies about characters repeating the same day over and over again didn’t begin with Harold Ramis’ 1993 comedy classic Groundhog Day, but that Bill Murray vehicle is the movie that all subsequent time-loop stories get compared to. The makers of horror movie Happy Death Day are clearly aware of the comparison, even having one character reference it explicitly near the end of the film, but they’re not really concerned with reinventing the concept. Instead, writer Scott Lobdell and director Christopher Landon (a veteran of the Paranormal Activity series) just play around with the idea of a spoiled sorority girl (Jessica Rothe’s Tree) reliving the day of her own murder multiple times.
After a few iterations, Tree realizes that she needs to discover the identity of her own killer, a masked figure who manages to end her life via stabbing, bludgeoning, drowning and various other means, and she does so without resorting to typical dumb horror-movie behavior, one indicator of the deceptive intelligence of Lobdell’s script. There’s plenty of silliness in there, too, courtesy of Tree’s cartoonish sorority sisters and other supporting characters, and the plot is simplistic and fairly predictable. But Landon has fun staging the same events again and again, especially in a goofy montage set to Demi Lovato’s “Confident” in which Tree gleefully saunters to her death multiple times while embracing and capitalizing on her supernatural fate.
There’s some requisite lesson-learning as Tree confronts the issues surrounding her mother’s death, tells off the snotty head of her sorority and realizes that the nice guy whose dorm room she wakes up in each morning is actually worthy of her romantic attention. Rothe’s confident, winning performance sells most of these extremely obvious developments, and she’s also great at projecting both fear and determination, depending on Tree’s mental state on any given version of the day. Happy Death Day is never scary and only rarely even mildly creepy, and its final twist is more of a punchline than a shocking reveal (although at least it more or less makes sense). Nobody will bother reliving this movie over and over again, but it’s a refreshingly good time while it lasts.