Happy Death Day can easily be described as Groundhog Day meets Scream, and at the story’s end it acknowledges its similarity to the Bill Murray comedy, but the movie does not suffer from a lack of creativity. Instead, it adeptly puts a funny, thrilling spin on familiar plots.
In Happy Death Day, Tree (a nickname for Theresa), played by Jessica Rothe, the second coming of Blake Lively, wakes up in Carter’s (Israel Broussard) dorm room on her birthday. She wants to keep the day a secret, but her roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine) finds out and her sorority, helmed by obnoxiously mean frenemy Danielle (Rachel Matthews), throws her a surprise party. By the end of the day, someone murders Tree. Because she has a couple of secrets and is kind of mean herself, the suspect list is long. Tree wakes up the next morning, as if from a nightmare, and is forced to relive her birthday until she figures out who kills her.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Happy Death Day is how scary it actually manages to make the college mascot, the Bayfield Baby. The killer wears the mascot mask, which was sold on campus for $1, and the lingering shots of the cartoon baby face are actually chilling. The movie also has plenty of jump scares, and before I got used to them, one about made my heart stop.
I knew from the start who the killer was, then the movie tricked me. But let the record show, I was right. Happy Death Day is supposed to be structured as a whodunnit with plenty of twists. It succeeds in delaying the reveal, even if it takes some turns that seem pretty contrived. The story is at its best when it sticks to Tree’s regular social circle.
As Happy Death Day mixed horror and comedy, it delivers on both. At times, however, it veers a bit too sweet. I appreciate that Tree is given a path for character development in which she attends to some open wounds and attempts to be a better person on her own terms. She’s a round, developed character for a 90-minute slasher film. The way this development proceeds, however, follows pretty much all at once and is a smidge saccharine.
The best part of the movie is that Tree is the hero. The film kind of plays with the “last girl” conventions of the genre, like Scream and others before have, in that Tree is exactly who should get killed in a slasher movie, based on her behavior. Many of the jokes are at the expense of cliches about sorority girls in the genre. Carter is a bit of a sidekick, and Rothe and Broussard have adorable chemistry as the duo, but it’s really up to Tree to solve the mystery. She does so with some sass and a sense of humor, in which Rothe excellently balances terror and comedy. In a genre traditionally caught up in the male gaze and the boundaries of girls’ sexuality, it is refreshing to see a movie that is carried by female characters who provide action, comedy and drama.
Happy Death Day is silly and fun; a good horror movie for those who don’t really like gore. With its PG-13 rating, comedic spin, and underlying girl power, it’s a good pick for Halloween fun, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it does not make it to the cult classic level of Halloween or Scream. 3.5/5 stars
Happy Death Day was written by Scott Lobdell and directed by Christopher Landon. It runs 96 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, some drug material and partial nudity. Aka murder in a frat house.
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