'Happy Death Day': Playful, Morbid Spin on Time Loop Drama

Directed by: Christopher Landon; Runtime: 96 minutes
Grade: B

Along with concentrating on making thrills or gore stimulating in one way or another, horror directors must also closely manage the expectations and anticipations of their audience, else they'll fall into the trap of being compared to whatever countless others have come before it in a specific subgenre. Christopher Landon's Happy Death Day not only has to navigate the hopes of those going in for yet another slasher movie, it also has to work around its plainly-seen similarities to the Bill Murray vehicle Groundhog Day: the notion that someone lives out the same day repeatedly in hopes of doing things right enough to see tomorrow. Once it's been going long enough for those watching to realize that it'll neither take certain smart ways out of the scenario nor conceal its blatant borrowing of the concept, the film discovers a gleefully macabre rhythm that telegraphs both laughs and tension, though its capabilities as a horror film might've been undercut by the frequency of deaths and the strong lean toward humor throughout.

College student Theresa, "Tree" (Jessica Rothe), wakes up on the morning of her birthday in the bed of a stranger, a lanky and affable guy named Carter (Israel Broussard) who tries to help get her stuff together, both literally and figuratively, on the headache-laden morning after a bender. Crankily, Tree stumbles out of his dorm room and into the wild of their campus, waltzing through a regular rhythm of petitioners, frat pledges, and admirers of hers as she makes the walk back to her sorority house. It's a routine, narcissistic day for Tree … until later that night, when she's murdered by someone wearing her college's mascot as a facemask. Instead of dying, she finds herself waking up the next morning right back in Carter's bed, reliving the same day once again and, unfortunately, meeting the same end, only in a different sequence of events. Gaining a grasp on what's happening with the situation, Tree attempts to figure out how to evade the killer, discover their identity, and survive until the next day, all the while figuring out some other stuff about herself.

You'd think that after Tree deals with the cyclical situation a handful of times and figures out the dynamics of what's going on, she might give skipping class and fleeing campus a try -- perhaps hopping on a plane and leaving the state -- since her repeated murder seems to be the mechanism that reboots the day. She doesn't, and that's surprising considering she's so self-concerned and focused on her own preservation, amplified by Jessica Rothe's vicious performance at the beginning. Happy Death Day operates in easily consumable platitudes, starting out with Tree as the embodiment of a conceited, venomous sorority girl who gives the immature self-absorption of Mean Girls' Regina George or any of the Heathers in Heathers a run for their money. As one might be able to decode from the premise, the evolution of Tree's negative attitude across repeated days and being murdered over and over turns into a crucial storytelling element in Christopher Landon's film, and Jessica Rothe's exaggerated and insistently unlikable rendering of the character draws attention to the concept's playful ambitions.

Naturally, the ambitions of Happy Death Day rely on observing how Tree gets murdered in a plethora of ways by one undeniably motivated killer, forcing her to reevaluate her activities and relationships over and over until she might be able to prevent her demise. While the redemptive setup of Tree's mean-spirited character may imitate Groundhog Day, the similarities ease up once she realizes that she won't be able to move on with her life until she survives her birthday, giving her a goal to work toward as she acclimates to the repetition. Executed by a creepy doll-faced predator reminiscent of the ghostly killer in Scream, the death sequences add gleeful and erratic variety to the progression of events, though the tone abruptly shifts from growing dread to macabre humor once she gets used to being murdered over and over. Knowing that she's going to die in every cycle until she cracks the mystery -- or comes to some other realization -- drains a certain type of suspense out of Happy Death Day, but it's been replaced with anticipating how Tree discovers new elements of her surroundings or shifts in her personality.

What keeps the audience on their toes in Happy Death Day, on top of unexpectedly brutal ways in which the Babyface Killer cuts down Tree, is the variety of suspects that could feasibly lurk behind the mask. Director Landon relishes toying with the audience in how his heroine tries to check off suspects around her, working with the film's perception of her metamorphosis into a better person as an indicator that she might be getting closer to discovering who they really are … and them cleverly flips the script on the film's early use of exaggerated platitudes. At one point, it seems entirely possible that Happy Death Day could've veered in an infuriating direction not foreshadowed by the layout of suspects and allies surrounding Tree, but even that plays into the film's wicked little stratagems and, by extension, the audience's expectations. Whether Tree wisely uses the days and the gaps in time we don't see is debatable, but at least the film doesn't fall into the trap of merely repeating her routines over and over, unless there's something truly meaningful involved with pinpointing her killer.

Everything doesn't go off without a hitch in Happy Death Day, from Tree's limited imagination in how to evade her situation to the spotty logic behind her not-so-thorough examination of suspects around the campus; with time, events and strategies confirm that she's much sharper than she lets on at first. While stumbling in areas, it makes up for it with the charmingly devil-may-care attitude adopted by the heroine as she gains perspective on her self-absorption, while becoming aware and appreciative of the smaller details going on in the world around her. Until the end, however, Christopher Landon never forgets that this is ultimately a horror movie, and his perception of how the set-up could become sentimentally imbalanced keeps the film's intentions in check until the last bite. In the vein of whimsical fantasy-horror flicks like The Final Girls and Ouija: Origin of Evil, enough gets taken seriously in the dramatics of Happy Death Day -- especially in terms of grief and relationships with parents -- to anchor the wit and violence, making this rousing indie outing not seem like it's just going through the motions.

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