Christopher B. Landon’s HAPPY DEATH DAY is not the first film to use the time loop motif as a twist on a familiar genre. Following Before I Fall, it’s not even the first film to do it this year. Yet as the Universal Logo stops and starts several times at the top of the movie, it shows that it’s willing to have some fun with the device.
Directionless college student Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard) after a hard night of drinking. Blearily making her way through the gauntlet of college antics, including her fierce sorority sisters and judgmental roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), she attempts to ignore her birthday entirely. However, later that night she is attacked and killed by a masked murderer – only to wake up the next morning in Carter’s room and have to live it all over again.
It might be counter-intuitive, but you have to give writer Scott Lobdell (best known for his comic book work) some props for originality. Sure, there’s more than a few shades of Groundhog Day, a classic that the film namechecks in acknowledgement. Yet the application of the device to the horror genre for the purpose of comedy is disarmingly delightful, especially given that it effectively becomes a whodunnit slasher with a single victim for the most part.
Landon doesn’t take long in this 96 minute flick to get into the groove of the time loop, setting up a series of gauntlets to either avoid or exploit later in the plot. There’s even an attempt to add some rules to Tree’s infinite lives, such as her body starting to feel the toll of the repeated murders. It’s a neat idea, but aside from adding a little bit of a non-specific ticking clock, it’s never really explored any further.
So what makes this work is the presence of the carismatic Rothe, who gets a genuine character arc as the film progresses. Rejecting the ‘nice’ image of most Final Girls, Tree is difficult to like in the opening scenes, and not just because of her ridiculous name. Pushing away virtually everybody with her gruff attitude, it’s remarkable that we begin to feel some level of empathy with her and even like her by third act.
There’s a lot of moments in HAPPY DEATH DAY that don’t stand up to closer inspection, but the inherent cheekiness to the piece allows the film to get away with much of it. While never as consciously satirical as the Scream franchise, or as sharp a take-down of the Insta-generation as Tragedy Girls, it’s definitely a few notches above the average horror flick and maybe even worth a repeat visit.