Die. Die. Repeat.
Edge of Tomorrow. Source Code. Haunter. 12 Dates of Christmas. 12 Days of Christmas Eve. Christmas Do-Over. Christmas Every Day. A whole lot of movies have ripped off Groundhog Day over the years (usually on Christmas for some reason) but a good idea is a good idea, and it really doesn’t matter if the idea is original so long as it’s done well.
Happy Death Day is one of the films that does Groundhog Day well. It’s a playfully dark comedy about a sorority student named Tree (Jessica Rothe), who is having a pretty normal, selfish, vapid day until a maniac in a baby mask kills her right at the end of it.
Instead of staying dead, she wakes up at the start of the day, knowing everything that’s going to happen to her. She tries to avoid getting killed the same way and then dies another way, and goes right back to the beginning. And so on. And so on.
It gets annoying for Tree, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun for us. Happy Death Day looks like a horror movie, and sometimes it even acts like it, but it’s not really trying to frighten you. Director Christopher Landon seems to understand that the premise is too silly to get under your skin, so Tree’s repeated murder plays like the punchline to a very sadistic – but admittedly very funny – running gag. Like Wile E. Coyote before her, it’s amusing to watch Tree perish because we know she’ll be just fine. Not very suspenseful, mind you, but amusing.
That approach could, of course, leave Happy Death Day feeling like it doesn’t have any consequences. Scott Lobdell’s sharp screenplay does find a way to get around this little dramatic hiccup by adding a new gimmick to the Groundhog Day playbook:
Every time Tree dies, she wakes up with residual pain from her last murder. Every day she gets weaker. So her clock is on an endless loop but it’s ticking anyway. That’s a clever way to have your cake and eat it too.
And sure enough, Happy Death Day is a cake. It’s fun to devour but not very nourishing. The film plays at meaningfulness, as Tree’s run-in with supernatural fatalism leads her to at least a little bit of wisdom, but she’s still young and she still makes foolish mistakes, because this is a story about making foolish mistakes, and making them again, and again and again. And of course, it’s about being punished for them in hilarious, violent and ultimately satisfying ways.