I consider Happy Death Day to be a lesser Blumhouse production, but the teens and preadolescents at the screening I attended last weekend seemed to love it. I can understand why—for an audience that doesn’t remember Groundhog Day, the premise, which finds a college student reliving the same day over and over (and getting killed at the end of it), might seem inventive. Moreover, the film offers a vision of early adulthood that could seem appealing to kids, presenting college as a time for socializing, dating, and self-discovery. None of the characters are particularly complex, but at least one of them learns to be a better person during the course of the picture, which makes Happy Death Day surprisingly optimistic for a slasher comedy. The violence isn’t even scary, since the audience knows the heroine will reawaken after she gets stabbed to death. Yet in removing a sense of consequence from violence, the movie crafts an interesting metaphor for early adulthood as a time when you can fail repeatedly at life until you get it right.
The film introduces the heroine, Tree (Jessica Rothe), as a shallow sorority sister who makes bad choices in life. She starts her day by waking up in the dorm room of a young man she doesn’t remember meeting; after an unsuccessful attempt to cure her hangover, she races back to her sorority, where she enters into a passive-aggressive verbal sparring match with another sister. She disregards the attention of her kind roommate, then goes to class late. She’s having an affair with the course’s married professor, but she doesn’t put much stock in the relationship. She continues to date other students (she’s shown blowing off a guy who took her out the week before) and, as we learn from one of her friends, makes out with random guys at parties. The day concludes when a masked stranger stabs Tree to death when she’s walking home from a football game.
After the fashion of Groundhog Day, the day begins again, with Tree waking up in the stranger’s dorm room. She figures out what’s going on fairly quickly, yet she can’t escape her killer at the end of the day. She dies, then reawakens, and the process repeats. Assuming she’ll be able to advance in time once she avoids dying, Tree sets out to discover who wants her dead. In doing so, she realizes that she’s been a shit to so many people that she can’t easily deduce whom her killer might be.
This revelation sparks the development of the movie’s second half, in which Tree tries to make better decisions and change the course of her life. Director Christopher Landon (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) nicely handles the shift in Scott Lobdell’s script from spooky mystery to redemption story, playing Tree’s transformation as the stuff of upbeat comedy. Rothe also becomes more likable during the course of the picture, conveying her character’s intelligence and vulnerability as she evolves.
On another level, Happy Death Day is a low-key celebration of cinema. Landon and Lobdell revel in how their story could only happen in the movies, piling on preposterous complications with self-aware glee. And Landon executes some nice, albeit arbitrary stylistic flourishes that draw attention to the filmmaking process. Happy Death Day sometimes suggests a kid-friendly version of the horror comedies Brian De Palma made in the 1970s (Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie), introducing an enthusiasm for film to younger audiences by tying it to a straightforward story with a positive moral. As movies for junior high and high school students go, you could do a lot worse.