Movies which use the same central conceit as Groundhog Day, that is that a person is reliving the same day over and over again, are becoming regular enough that it’s beginning to become a small sub-genre of its own. Since the original we’ve had Run, Lola, Run which is different from the original in that Lola isn’t really experiencing the day over and over, the audience is just being shown the same scenario in different ways it could have played out. Then, there is Edge of Tomorrow (Live, Die, Repeat) in which Tom Cruise relives the same day over and over due to having inherited the powers of an alien, and learns that he is not the first to have gained this power. In ARQ a science experiment causes a time loop which has a couple of scientists and a crew of mercenaries raiding their laboratory to relive the same day over and over. So far, the premise has continued to hold up as in each incarnation a new, interesting twist is thrown in to keep the story intriguing in a different way. Now we have Happy Death Day, which is a film about Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) who starts the day waking up in a strange bed in a dorm room after a night of heavy drinking and ends the day by getting murdered by a person in a mask. This day also happens to be her birthday, and she keeps reliving it over and over again.
A film like this relies heavily on the talent and charisma of its star. Jessica Rothe (if she seems familiar, she was the blonde roommate of Emma Stone in La La Land) does have charisma aplenty, but it’s a little hard to determine the depths of her talent. She does chew the scenery splendidly in Happy Death Day, bringing us a truly over-the-top bad stereotype level sorority bitch as the movie starts and becoming more of a decent person as the film goes on, but this is a film that isn’t interested in the least in realism, nuance, and honest character development. To her credit, Rothe seems to recognize this and revels in her role for what it is – a walking talking plot device we are meant to root for rather than a fully fleshed out person. She starts as a stereotype and as the movie moves forward just changes which stereotype she is for reasons that aren’t reasonably explained. Given that’s what she has to work with, she does as admirable a job as anyone could be expected to.
Scott Lobdell’s screenplay is another element of Happy Death Day which almost seems to revel in its imperfection. Happy Death Day very obviously knows what kind of movie it is, going so far as to compare itself out loud to Groundhog Day at one point, and so it plays on the audience’s expectations of what they expect from a time loop movie. The way it plays with the audience is both clever and fun, but it isn’t internally consistent. Changes to a person’s character just happen because that’s what these movies do, not because the story gives us a real reason. The film definitely has fun with and gives us a decent twist on the sub-genre, but it isn’t smart enough to always (and, the always is important here – sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t) incorporate those twists in a way that meshes with the story line, and can even seem counterintuitive to it.
The most important factor of Happy Death Day, though, despite its many flaws and inconsistencies is that it is an entirely self aware movie. It knows it exists simply to allow its audience to have fun via scares and playing around with our expectations. Those things it does very well, and while I would have liked to see more from it in particularly the characterization department, I also don’t know what restrictions the cast and crew had to work with. Perhaps this is a case of focusing almost entirely on the main thing the movie wants to do and letting other factors slide was the wise and not the lazy choice. I’ll never know, but I do know that Happy Death Day is a film that is a ton of fun most of the time despite its flaws.
Final verdict: While I wouldn’t quite classify Happy Death Day as a horror comedy, it is such a fun, unpretentious film that it will most definitely scratch that itch should you have it. Its characters are shallow and change purely because in a plot like this you expect them to, but I can’t deny that all the actors here are charming and likable. This is the exact opposite of the movie you should go to if you are looking for anything with any level of heft or depth at all, but if you like campy horror meant more to make you jump and laugh than to disturb or scare, then Happy Death Day is a surprisingly fun ride.