Happy Death Day

Movie Information

The Story: Sorority sister Tree finds herself reliving her birthday on a loop, with each iteration ending in her death by a mystery assailant, and so must solve her own murder to break the cycle. The Lowdown: Turns out being a shameless Groundhog Day rip-off is not the worst thing that can happen to your movie.
Genre: Time-Travel Horror
Director: Christopher Landon
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Rob Mello
Rated: PG-13

So here we have the rare modern PG-13 slasher that actually works. And why PG-13? Pretty simple: no sex (and one obligatory F-word). With its looping, loopy plotting, the film gets its one tossed-off bro-y sex joke out of the way early while still being able to play it for equal groans and laughs as the same day (and joke) is repeated over and over. Added to that, we have an actual story-based motivation for our Hero to solve and transcend her time-warped whodunnit.

If you’re familiar with Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, you’ll guess who the killer is pretty early on. But even then, the film becomes less about who or what is after sorority sister Tree (Jessica Rothe, really great here) and more about her learning to use her intellectual and emotional responses alongside her limited resources and skills to upend whatever “curse” she’s under that is trapping her endlessly on the day of her own death. If any comparisons are to be made to the obvious influence Groundhog Day, it’s more the tone and pacing that recall that earlier, loftier project. They get the feeling right, wrenching a little pathos from this meager horror-comedy, and that counts for a lot.

My only real gripe — and it’s a small one — is that the film is a little lazy while first establishing its repeating timeline. As Tree lives her day for the second and third times, she seems to bump into the same people and witness the same events whether she leaves to start her day immediately or hesitates one or two extra minutes. In time-travel movie parlance, this is known as a “sawtooth snap,” in that we’re seeing that these other versions of reality are set to our hero’s perception of what’s what and not to the objective order of events. Director Christopher Landon uses these replicated episodes to orient us and eventually plays a little straighter with Tree’s temporal placement throughout each day. Again, it’s not a huge deal, and I get why we’re eased into the proceedings, but I also agree with Richard Donner that verisimilitude is everything.

But even so, none of it would work without Rothe at the center. She’s smart, charismatic and funny as hell in a role that would normally only ask her to play the scared, panicking sorority girl. If only more of these films would start casting leads who were actually interesting to watch, we’d be in great shape in no time.

As I’ve mentioned before — and as you probably know — Blumhouse Productions has become the go-to studio for tiny horror films that make a big splash, and I’m happy to report that this turned out to be one of its better recent offerings. While this one won’t go down in history alongside greats like Get Out (or even the cool but not great Insidious films), it fits nicely into their subcategory of films that will be rewatched every October and (hopefully) passed down to new viewers as the years go by.


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