Movie Review: ‘Happy Death Day’ a Pseudo-Slasher Groundhog Day
In the profound, near-religious Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s weatherman finds himself waking up to repeat the same day, every day - and learning, through the unusual situation he finds himself in, to become a better person in the process.
In Happy Death Day, birthday girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds herself in the same situation, with one key difference: instead of going to bed every night, she’s murdered by a masked killer - only to wake up to the tune of 50 Cent’s In Da Club and repeat the day all over again.
A slasher movie twist on the Groundhog Day twist sounds like fun, but don’t into Happy Death Day expecting a horror film: this is a nearly-bloodless enterprise that uses the killer only as a plot device, and delivers few scares or little tension along the way.
Instead, the film becomes a Clue-like mystery when Tree and Carter (Israel Broussard), resident of the dorm room she finds herself waking up in, immediately decide that in order to wake up tomorrow, she must not just survive the night, but solve her own murder.
Was it the creepy stalker guy that keeps following her? The bitchy sorority sister that berates her? The random serial killer that just happens to be staying at the university hospital?
At its best, Happy Death Day is a Groundhog Day clone that lifts not only the premise from the 1992 film but also a lot of the story beats and character moments. But if you’re going to steal, steal from the greats: as derivative as it is, the film is still good fun as it hits familiar notes.
Still, the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too. Tree is a real piece of work at the beginning, and truly learns to become a better person by the end. And Rothe, a better actress than we expect in a film like this (she was last seen in La La Land), really sells the transformation: her performance is easily the best thing the movie has going for it.
But there’s no impetus for her character arc: it’s established early on that all she needs to do is solve the mystery for the cycle to end, so she has no reason to suddenly go good while investigating the crime. The change in heart feels shoehorned in.
Groundhog Day works because we’re as clueless as the main character in approaching the unexplainable situation he finds himself in, and identify with his inner journey. Something like the Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow (which also borrowed this premise) works because the situation is clearly explained and we get involved with the surface story. Happy Death Day wants it to have it both ways, and end up working on neither.
Especially on the mystery narrative: the resolution here is not only ridiculous, but deeply unsatisfying. The actions of the killer are not only illogical, but also impossible. And isn’t the real killer is still out there?
A novel twist on the typical slasher film is always welcome, even if the twist isn’t really novel and the movie isn’t really a slasher film, anyway. But while Happy Death Day provides some fleeting fun with its appealing premise, it isn’t nearly as clever as it needs to be.