A self-aware riff on Groundhog’s Day comes to life with a murderous twist in the new horror film Happy Death Day. The formula may be familiar, but the results are surprisingly original.
Everyone knows a girl like Tree Gelbman, and if you don’t then it’s possible you are the Tree Gelbman of your world. She is a boldly self-centered young woman doing her best to navigate college and adulthood on her own terms. She is in a sorority, but you get the sense early on she’s not the most beloved sister. She’s also a single woman attracting the attention of guys both good and bad, as well as those already committed to others. You get the sense that lying disgusts her, yet the way she presents herself is largely based upon the idea that no one can define her other than herself, even if that definition is false.
On the day we meet Tree her life is a bit messier than normal. After waking up in the dorm of a boy whose name she struggles to remember, her every step seems fraught with peril and poor decisions. She is rude to her roommate and her sisters, cold to the boy whose room she shared, and entangled in a sexual relationship with her married professor. It seems for everything good we learn about Tree there is something awful waiting to be revealed, so it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise when she is somewhat unceremoniously murdered by a knife-wielding villain in a baby mask.
Happy Death Day finds its groove shortly after Tree is killed. As soon as the blade strikes, which is a moment we do not see due to the film’s PG-13 rating, Tree awakes to find herself in the same dorm room as the previous day. She soon realizes everything about the day is the same, from the awkward conversation with the boy whose room she slept in, to the numerous encounters with others we already witnessed. Tree is stuck reliving the day of her death, which also happens to be her birthday, over and over again until she uncovers her killer and the reasons behind their actions.
They say there are no new ideas, just inventive thieves, and that has rarely been more true than it is with Happy Death Day. The structure of the narrative is exactly the same as any other story about someone learning a great personal lesson while trapped in a seemingly endless loop, only this time there is a literal baby-faced killer on the prowl. How the film sets itself apart, aside from the element of murder, is by choosing to focus on Tree’s mental state as she experiences the surreal nature of being stuck in a single day over and over again. It’s a smart move that allows the film to find nearly as many comedic moments as it does instances of trope-heavy horror, and those two elements counter-balance one another in such a way as to create a genuinely enjoyable viewing experience.
As with many movies of this variety, the clues needed to solve the mystery of Tree’s death are shown on screen constantly, as if intended to mock those who will inevitably watch the film a second time in hopes of catching anything they might have missed. The film does try to distract viewers from this by creating a sizable pool of potential suspects in early scenes, but perceptive viewers may very well be able to solve the whodunnit element of the story before the big third act reveal. This will no doubt deflate the viewing experience for some, but the quip-heavy dialogue from writer Scott Lobdell goes a long way toward keeping even those smartest viewers engaged until the credits roll.
Perhaps the only frustrating thing about Happy Death Day is the fact the film manages to be consistently entertaining without ever attempting to become truly memorable. It’s a perfectly good popcorn flick that could have been great, which is much better than a potentially great film executed adequately, but still the final product leaves you dreaming of what could have been. Perhaps with a hard R rating the film could have had more fun with the various ways Tree is killed off, but then again any added gore would likely diminish the impact of the story’s more lighthearted moments. For what it is, this may be the best version of Happy Death Day that could be made. It’s entirely watchable, albeit a bit forgettable, and it has one of the funniest final scenes of any horror film this year. As long as viewers keep expectations low there is a lot of fun to be had with this film.