Title: Happy Death Day
Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote:
Marge: Maybe death will stop your yammering, huh?
Brief Plot Synopsis: Coed killed constantly, concocts counter course.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant to the Film: Three Ned Ryersons out of five.
Tagline: "Get Up. Live Your Day. Get Killed. Again."
Better Tagline: "Not nearly as dumb as the title suggests."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: The good news is, it’s college student Teresa “Tree” Gelbman's (Jessica Rothe) birthday. The bad news is, she keeps living it over and over again. First waking up in a strange dorm room with a boy she doesn’t remember (Israel Broussard), going about her business, and ending up killed by a weirdo in a baby mascot mask, at which point she wakes up and starts the process all over again. The solution eventually dawns on her: foil the murderer and break the time loop. But how? And is the killer her wannabe boyfriend? The professor she’s sleeping with? The professor’s wife? And what kind of weird-ass college has a baby for a mascot anyway?
"Critical" Analysis: What do you do when the obvious inspiration for your time-warp murder mystery is a (more or less) classic Bill Murray movie (“inspiration” in this case meaning “roughly 80 percent of the plot")? If you're the director (Christopher Landon) or writer (Scott Lobdell) of Happy Death Day, you go all in, and don't even bother to file off the serial numbers. Serial numbers, hell; it's more like one of those discount water glasses you buy at Ross and try to peel away the price tag when you get home, but it won’t come off so you just leave it on and hope the dishwasher eventually gets rid of it. Meanwhile, everyone knows you bought your dishes at Ross.
Clumsy metaphors aside, “Edge of Groundhog Day” sounds like a bad thing, but Happy Death Day embraces its slavish devotion so utterly it actually…sort of…works? It’s a horror-comedy that veers more toward the latter (especially in the second act), and succeeds as much as it does because of a solid foundation.
And anyway, this is Hollywood we’re talking about. They’ve been cannibalizing their existing properties since 1903’s Great Train Robbery was remade (in 1904). Wasn’t Speed just “Die Hard on a bus?” Does anyone seriously knock The Magnificent Seven for being “inspired by” Seven Samurai? Not that Happy Death Day will ever be mentioned in the same breath as any of these, but if you’re going to steal, why not steal from the best?
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HDD’s lean running time also keeps the (necessary) repetition from bogging things down, a pitfall that occasionally tripped up Groundhog Day. The whodunit aspect helps as well, keeping Tree’s evolution from shallow SB to decent person from being the sole focus of her breaking out of the loop. Some of the beats are predictable, sure (the successive identical wake-ups send Tree from confusion to terror, and finally just piss her off, with often hilarious results), but things move briskly. And surprisingly able performances from the group of largely unknown actors don't hurt, either.
The movie does suffer from some genre-specific tropes, however. Namely, when you’re certain of your potential killer’s whereabouts at a specific time, it perhaps makes more sense to lie in wait with a gun rather than individually track suspects to remove them from suspicion. There’s also a scene where Tree barricades herself in her room with about as much efficacy as the Dude nailing a board to the floor in The Big Lebowski.
But Rothe is quite winning (and not in the Charlie Sheen sense) as the oft-doomed protagonist, while the whole endeavor is self-aware enough, perhaps smugly so, that its confidence carries it through. Because let’s be honest, the target demographic for this – a college-centered PG-13 horror movie – may not even be aware of the existence of Groundhog Day in the first place.
This fact might have persisted if Landon didn’t explicitly bring it up in the film’s final scene. It smacks of novice filmmaker hubris, and maybe it is (Landon directed the 5th Paranormal Activity movie and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, so you make the call), but Rothe and company are engaging enough to make us overlook it.