Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine
Directed by: Christopher Landon (“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”)
Written by: Scott Lobdell (“Man of the House”)
For a self-aware slasher movie that features the main character reliving the same day over and over again after being brutally murdered by a mask-wearing killer, “Happy Death Day” takes too goddamn long to point out just how similar the whole endeavor is to the modern classic “Groundhog Day,” saving it for the epilogue. If this were a “Scream” movie, the Jamie Kennedy archetype would have connected the dots on that shit in the second act.
In spite of that egregious pop culture reference oversight, “Happy Death Day” manages to become a clever-enough horror movie that could have been truly great given another shot of creativity and the freedom of an R-rating.
The film begins (many times) with Tree (Jessica Rothe) waking up on her birthday with a nasty hangover in an unknown guy’s dorm room. Turns out he’s a nice guy named Carter (Israel Broussard) and she went home with him last night. Being a super mean sorority bitch, Tree orders him to never tell anyone what happened, and she begins her walk of shame through campus and back to her sorority house, encountering a leering goth, an environmental protester, and a guy she ghosted. As she rolls in, her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) offers her a homemade cupcake for her birthday—which Tree ruthlessly chunks into the garbage. Later she meets with a professor she’s having an affair with, nearly getting caught by his wife, and ignores multiple phone calls from her dad. By the time she’s going out alone for a party, her path takes her down a dimly-lit alleyway, where she’s stabbed to death by a killer wearing a mask of a toothy baby.
And then, just like that, she wakes up in Carter’s dorm again, forced to repeat the same day until she’s able to find her killer, all the while becoming a somewhat better person.
“Happy Death Day” shines when the film decides to have fun and go for laughs, which happens often—but not quite enough. Rothe turns in a wickedly bitchy performance that, again, could have been a gleefully campy classic had the studio chosen to shoot for an R-rating, throwing in more gore and some variety to its kills, a la “Edge of Tomorrow.” And though the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome at 96 minutes, some elaboration wouldn’t hurt, as several premises introduced during the movie—Tree’s mother’s death, that every time she comes back to life she carries internal physical scars from the kills—are introduced with little to no payoff. “Happy Death Day” works way more than it doesn’t, but maybe one, like with Tree, more go ‘round could have sharpened things up.