“HAPPY DEATH DAY” — 3 stars — Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken; PG-13 (violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity); in general release
"Happy Death Day" might be a perfect fit for your Halloween season, applying the "Groundhog Day" formula to a horror premise for a film that isn't quite original but still manages to be a lot of fun.
Christopher Landon's effort tells the story of a miserable sorority girl who finds herself reliving the day of her own murder. Teresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is a protagonist in desperate need of redemption. We meet her as she wakes up in a strange dorm room, hung over from a night of partying. On her way to class — which is taught by a young married professor (Gregory Butler) she's having an affair with — she’s rude to her presumed one-night stand Carter (Israel Broussard), her thoughtful roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), and most anyone else she comes in contact with. She can't even be bothered to take a call from her own father, who is trying to wish her a happy birthday.
By evening, she's off to a fraternity party, but along the way, she is attacked by a dark figure wearing an obnoxious-looking baby mask — apparently depicting the mascot of her fictional school, Bayside University. Then she wakes up in Carter's dorm room, and the whole cycle starts up again.
For a while, things are pretty predictable, even if you aren't well versed in the 1993 Bill Murray film about the grouchy weatherman who has a similar supernatural experience while covering a Groundhog Day festival. But "Happy Death Day" marries a black comic sense of fun to its horror trappings, and once Tree gets past the obligatory "what is going on?" phase, things get pretty entertaining.
Eventually "Happy Death Day" becomes a creepy kind of whodunit, sending Tree and the audience on a quest to figure out which of her highly-motivated adversaries is killing her night after night, while simultaneously learning to stop being the miserable kind of person who would inspire murder in the first place. To raise the stakes, Tree discovers that each reset isn't quite a clean slate, and that the physical trauma from her repeated deaths is slowly accumulating.
Landon's film isn't the first to riff off the "Groundhog Day" formula, and it isn't even the first film to do it this year. "Happy Death Day" actually has a near-identical plot to last spring's "Before I Fall" — a spoiled teenage girl relives the same day over and over (which always ends in her death) until she can learn to be a better person. But where “Before I Fall” feels content to play the formula as a sober teen drama, "Happy Death Day" has a lot of self-aware fun with its derivative identity.
Any of these movies are going to be at a clear disadvantage, simply by not having someone like Bill Murray in the lead role. But Rothe is able to strike a tricky balance between playing a genuinely nasty sorority girl and a protagonist that you can slowly learn to cheer for. Scott Lobdell's script also provides enough misdirection to keep things interesting and caps the effort off in a way that feels satisfying.
For pure scares, horror fans should look elsewhere, as "Happy Death Day" leans much more toward the comic end of the horror-comedy spectrum. But if you're looking for a fun and harmless option heading into Halloween, "Happy Death Day" won't leave you disappointed.
“Happy Death Day” is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity; running time: 96 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on YouTube.