By Preston Wilder
I know Groundhog Day is 24 years old now – but does it really have to be explained, as it is at the end of Happy Death Day? (Maybe it’s because Edge of Tomorrow, which employed a similar scenario, flopped so badly.) This is Groundhog Day re-imagined as a slasher movie – the heroine who keeps getting killed and re-living her murder, day after day – with a touch of the inevitability-of-Death scenario from Final Destination. Though in fact it’s also a whodunit. And sometimes a comedy.
What you might call the philosophical foundation is slightly different than in Groundhog Day. Bill Murray’s character was being tested by the Universe, or God or whatever: the contours of his life were unchangeable, and he had to live (and become a better person) within those contours. Tree (Jessica Rothe), on the other hand, has a lot of leeway. Her masked killer comes at her from various angles – he (or she) is everywhere, even in her closet! – but the killer isn’t a concept, it’s a person who can be avoided, even destroyed. Tree can fight back, using the knowledge she’s amassed from the various repetitions of her day, kill the killer and move on with her life. Groundhog Day was about moral growth; Happy Death Day is about empowerment.
For a while, it doesn’t look like the film’s going to work. Tree doesn’t seem as shocked as she should be when she wakes up in the same dorm room and it’s once again her birthday – she’s all the way back in her own room before she admits to “totally having déjà vu” – nor as committed to making sense of her existential crisis. It all feels a bit mechanical. There are obvious markers to the obvious character arc: our heroine begins as a rather bitchy college student – but we know she’s eventually going to sign that petition for global warming, and say hi to the cheerful Asian girl she ignores in the first few iterations.
Above all, turning the plot into an ongoing puzzle to be solved changes the dynamic completely. Tree has a mission now – especially since the script adds a new wrinkle, viz. that she gets a little weaker with each new repetition (Time’s running out; she’s not caught in an endless loop, like in Groundhog Day). She makes lists of suspects and confides in Carter (Israel Broussard), the nice boy in whose bed she wakes up every morning. The time-warp becomes almost prosaic. The slasher is no longer scary, just a kind of punctuation mark that recurs every few minutes. The metaphysical angle is almost forgotten.
Yet the film is increasingly exuberant – and the blithe, peppy tone is part of the charm. Like the recent Wish Upon, this is PG-13 horror (the ‘18’ rating it’s received in Cyprus is misleading), skewing comedic as much as horrific; it even has a fart joke. Despite the deaths there’s very little blood, and, despite the traditional prurience of slasher movies, there’s no actual sex (Tree wakes up in Carter’s bed, but it turns out he slept elsewhere). It’s unclear if this is a marketing ploy – light-hearted horror films for tweens, who are more likely to go to the cinema than older teenagers – or a reflection of the growing sexual conservatism on American campuses; maybe college life is about to become more clean-cut, at least in the movies (Carter’s inappropriate roommate ends up getting spanked and berated as a “naughty boy”!). Whatever the reason, Happy Death Day is joyous, which is not an adjective you’d expect to apply in a film with about a dozen murders – granted, they’re variations on the same murder – and the occasional suicide.
The actors help. Broussard is adorable as the endlessly-understanding boyfriend every girl wants, but of course this is Rothe’s movie and she carries it effortlessly: she – like the film – seems game for anything, running the gamut from obnoxious to triumphant. When empowerment finally arrives, near the end (just before a rather neat sting in the tail), her joy is so palpable I had tears in my eyes.
We shouldn’t over-egg this tasty but prepackaged pudding. Happy Death Day is undoubtedly dumb, aimed at popcorn-munchers with low expectations – “I hope you both die,” texts a jealous girlfriend as her beau is being murdered by the slasher in the background; it’s that kind of movie – but redeems itself through constant fresh gambits, likeable people, dizzy comic detail and ebullient energy, elevated into feelgood faux-horror fun. It may not be an endlessly inventive, startlingly profound modern classic, but that’s okay. We have Groundhog Day for that.
DIRECTED BY Christopher Landon
STARRING Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine
US 2017 96 mins