Subgenre: Slasher / Mystery
Summary: A coed relives the day of her murder over and over again.
Review: Happy Death Day proudly wears its gimmick on its sleeve: it’s Groundhog Day from the point of view of one of the usually-anonymous nubile victims in countless slasher films. After a night of hard partying, Tree wakes up in an underclassman’s dorm with a wicked hangover. She heads back to her sorority house, gets ready for a party later that night, and on her way, is stabbed to death by a masked killer. Immediately after her death, she wakes up again in the same dorm room and relives the same events, attempting to evade her murderer but to no avail. Repeat as needed, and we have our plot.
Like all good Groundhog Day knockoffs, Happy Death Day has fun with its premise. We watch Tree’s attitude toward her killer go from sheer terror to weary frustration as she tries and fails countless times to get the better of him. She’s a refreshingly intelligent horror movie heroine, and her logical approach to her insane situation makes her easy to root for. Of course, this is also due in no small part to Jessica Rothe’s performance. With her big, expressive smile and flippant delivery, she seamlessly embodies Tree’s transformation from self-absorbed party girl to sympathetic badass. It’s thanks to her (along with an emotionally intelligent screenplay) that the more serious scenes are effective instead of cheesy and token.
The lean, mean script may be the movie’s strongest point, tossing out a veritable arsenal of Chekov’s guns in the first act and paying off every single one later on. As always in these movies, it’s a pleasure to watch the protagonist execute their day perfectly, and Happy Death Day’s rock-solid script makes it all the more satisfying. It’s a bit of a surprise, then, that its last five minutes or so are tacked on to what would have been a perfectly good ending. These final scenes do make a case for their inclusion, but it’s clear they could have been cut with a few minor edits.
Happy Death Day’s sense of humor is another welcome asset, presenting a satirical (though never cartoonish) take on the emptiness of college hedonism, and boasting some absolutely savage one-liners. It isn’t much of a horror movie, though aside from its first twenty minutes or so, it’s not really trying to be.
The Verdict: It won’t cause any nightmares, but Happy Death Day is a fun and clever twist on the Groundhog Day formula. I give it seven endless executions out of ten.