Teenagers will likely flock to “Happy Death Day,” Christopher Landon’s funhouse thriller about a young woman who keeps reliving the day she dies, but anyone who’s seen “Groundhog Day” — or is even marginally familiar with the tropes of slasher movies — may find its repetition as punishing to them as to its hapless protagonist.
Landon, who wrote four of the “Paranormal Activity” films, knows a lot about reverse engineering scary scenarios from mundane situations, but as with later installments of that series, he overcomplicates the logistics and mythology of the premise, aiming for something more raucous (and fun) in tone but lacking the intensity — or inevitability — to make its repetition feel truly chilling.
Jessica Rothe (“La La Land”) plays Tree, a college student who starts the morning of her birthday regaining consciousness hungover and regretful in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard, “The Bling Ring”), an awkwardly cheerful young man she doesn’t remember meeting. Hastily making her exit, Tree returns to her sorority to piece together the events of the previous night, ignoring calls from her father and downplaying well-wishes from her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine, “Shameless”), who even made her a cupcake to celebrate.
En route to a fraternity party that night, Tree is stalked, and eventually, murdered by a killer wearing a mask of their school’s baby-faced mascot. Instead of becoming just another faceless victim, however, she awakens once again once again in Carter’s bed as the events of the past day re-play themselves minute by minute. After this pattern repeats itself yet again, she realizes that she is reliving what amounts to the last moments of her life, and races to piece together the identity of the killer so she can stop the cycle and prevent her own death.
It’s hard to tell if “Happy Death Day” is a smart movie masquerading as a dumb one or vice versa. But at the very least, it seems to take no small pleasure in denying the young woman her “Groundhog Day”-style self-improvement epiphanies, accumulating twists to keep her searching for the killer’s identity via a skillful if woefully conspicuous collection of red herrings introduced with machinelike precision during the “first” day through the wringer. Operating with a post-“Scream” level of self-awareness, Landon assembles montages of her dying that more closely resemble the whoopsy-daisy punch lines of Tom Cruise getting knocked off in “Edge of Tomorrow” than the terror of a true horror-movie death.
Unfortunately, those experiences never seem to bequeath her much material knowledge about how to prevent being killed — like, say, the discovery that she effectively can ensure exactly where her attacker will be if she just repeats the same actions over again a single time. There is possibly something deeper to say here about the consequences of one’s actions, or even literally learning from one’s mistakes, but the movie is having too much fun making them to heed its own lessons, eliminating suspects one at a time without acknowledging, much less properly exploring, the brutality and dread of facing another day that will end with your death.
As Tree, Rothe deftly maintains the balance between bitchy and likeable needed for audiences to both enjoy watching her die and want to see her live; she has the same sort of posh-but-relatable charm as someone like Blake Lively and shows a promise that one hopes she’ll have an opportunity to fulfill in the future with more sophisticated roles.
Broussard, meanwhile, plays the only character who doesn’t feel from the first scene like a decoy/ potential murderer, which is a testament both to screenwriter Scott Lobdell’s writing, and the young actor’s just-started-shaving appeal. But like with many other elements, Tree and Carter’s budding romance lacks the awareness needed to make it at once a support system for a desperate young woman and a transient reassurance within the framework of a cycle destined to reset their intimacy each time.
Ultimately it feels like there were two ways to develop this idea — it could be interesting, or it could be commercial — and Landon and Lobdell opted for the easier route. Of course, for 14-year-olds who need something on the screen while they Snapchat from inside a movie theater, the movie works sorta perfectly, a distraction that barely counts as horror but throws enough curveballs to keep them intrigued while waiting for messages back from their friends.
But anybody who’s watched a dozen co-eds get hacked to bits by a masked killer in any of a thousand movies before this one may take away from “Happy Death Day” the same sense of repetition and disappointment as poor Tree, because there seems to be an inability or unwillingness to make smarter choices in not just familiar but virtually identical scenarios – and it’s not the characters who are to blame, but the filmmakers who created them.