Don’t get me wrong, HAPPY DEATH DAY is a pretty dumb movie. But for a wide-release, PG-13 movie on a Friday the 13th in October, it is just the type of dumb, fun, horror tryst you hope to find for a mindless night at the cinema.
The elevator pitch for it must have been a quick one because the film is just essentially GROUNDHOG DAY as a horror film, subbing in a blonde sorority sister for Bill Murray. Tree (Jessica Rothe)—which is short for Theresa and not an arboreal reference—wakes up in an unfamiliar dorm room. We can tell from her demanding, sarcastic demeanor that she considers her overnight host Carter (Israel Broussard) beneath her. After traipsing past a veritable obstacle course of a college campus she proceeds to have a bummer of a day. And did I mention it is Tree’s birthday too? Instead of meeting her father for a birthday dinner she decides to head to a frat party. On her way there, she gets killed by a stalker in a black hoodie and unnerving baby mask.
But that’s just the beginning! As soon as Tree gets killed, the day hits reset and she, once again, wakes up in Carter’s room with a splitting headache. From here, the plot follows GROUNDHOG DAY to a T. She sways from vaguely suicidal to flippant and arrogant about her new found capacity for regeneration. Heck, she even does her morning walk of shame in the buff once, knowing full well that no one who sees her keister will ever remember it.
The main difference here between HAPPY DEATH DAY and GROUNDHOG DAY is the fact that the former lacks both Murray’s charm and existential weight , but seems unconcerned with its own levity. The truth is that Tree’s looping predicament corners the most horrifying aspect of her new reality (the nightly slashings) into as very safe zone. Sure, it hurts to be stabbed and sliced daily, but when it comes to processing the possibility of your own mortality, HAPPY DEATH DAY puts the “death” part into that non-threatening space. Not matter how tense her death scene is that night, she will live another day (or the same day). We can gleefully watch Tree get killed over and over again, while still developing an affection for her ever improving character, and root for her to find her killer.
And that is Tree’s ultimate goal. She somehow surmises that finding and stopping her death will stop the cycle of her being repeatedly killed. This means that all of the soul searching and attitude adjusting as she repeats this day is merely an extracurricular to make herself a better person, and not a way to thwart the day’s reset button. By having to repeatedly face the way that she treats people she realizes that she’s a terrible person, and for once she can switch the focus from being self-centered to working on herself.
HAPPY DEATH DAY has loads of logical issues and pet peeves that should anger the horror lover in me. The camera cuts away before all of the kills (hence the lowly PG-13 rating). The ending wraps everything into a neat and bloodless bow. The plot gets all muddled with kindness and romance. But somehow, HAPPY DEATH DAY settles into its own superficiality and asks you to do the same. Give it a try!