It’s pretty amazing that the horror genre hasn’t really applied the Groundhog Day premise until this last weekend’s release of Happy Death Day. It seems like an obvious plot device to use but maybe it needed the right writer, director, and production company to realize its potential. Blumhouse is already riding high this year with the success of Split and Get Out and now it can add Happy Death Day to a fine year of accomplishments. While more of a comedy than a horror film, Happy Death Day works because it knows exactly what it is and has a wicked sense of humor. I was reminded a bit of You’re Next and April Fools Day in its execution and some of the humor owes a bit of credit to films like Scream as well. Judging by its first-place finish at the box office over the weekend, it looks like fans are picking up what this film is putting down and shows that when executed well, horror and its sub-genres can truly shine as we have seen in a year that has given us multiple examples of the genre bringing in huge profits at the box office.
Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is one of the Queen B(itch) sorority sisters. She wakes up on the morning of her birthday with a massive hangover in the bed of nerdy nice-guy Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). She’s mortified – if anyone finds out she’s with this guy, her reputation will be ruined. But she’s late for class and an extra-curricular assignation with a professor (Charles Aitken). By evening, she has been able to piss off a wide variety of people and ignore repeated calls from her father. Then, on her way to a party, she wanders into a dark area off campus and is murdered by someone wearing a creepy chubby baby mask. But, instead of ascending into the clouds or descending elsewhere, she wakes up again in Carter’s room on the morning of her birthday. Lather, rinse, repeat. If you’ve seen Groundhog Day, you know where this is going but the added twist is that Tree gets closer and closer to figuring out who kills her each time she dies.
The film’s first half-hour is entertaining and is at it’s very best. It consists of the set-up and the first repeat. We get to see how things play out mostly the same but with slight variations while Tree struggles with what she thinks is a massive case of déjà vu. Since the film is a little over 90 minutes, the film doesn’t waste too much time having Tree figure out what’s going on, an aspect of the film I greatly appreciated. While the film is being marketed more as a slasher film, it’s evident that the film is being played more for the comedy and is first half hour is key to setting this up. There are certainly slasher movie elements but with a PG-13 rating, they’re virtually tame (Despite qualms about PG-13 horror, the rating is not a detriment to the film).
Dark humor is pretty difficult to get right but the film hits all the right notes. When Tree “dies” at her surprise party, she decides to board herself in her room for her next go round but the end result proves to be comically fruitless. She can’t really avoid her fate because her fate is tied to figure out who is doing this to her and to also see her change and grow as a person. There is clever montage that has her eliminating people from her suspect list and dying in even more comical ways she determines who may or may not be involved.
There is a minor twist to the Groundhog Day scenario. In the 1993 classic, Murray’s character lived his single day thousands of times. Here, the number of iterations is in the low double digits and can’t rise asymptotically toward infinity because every time Tree dies, she becomes weaker. She postulates she’s like a cat with nine lives. This actually raises the stakes a bit because we see each time it’s harder for her to come back and since we grow to like Tree, we are invested in her figuring everything out before it becomes too difficult for her to fight death each time.
I’ve never seen Jessica Rothe in anything before this but she carries this film effortlessly. She has to begin as someone we don’t like very much and then earn our sympathy as her character grows due to her situation. She handles the comedy expertly and actually has a few dramatic moments that ring true as well. Some might find the character redemption stuff a bit cheesy but I thought it was handled well and avoided being too heavy-handed. Other than Rothe, Israel Broussard is the only other actor with a role of significance and he’s likable in all the right ways. He and Rothe share enough chemistry for us to root for them and he’s instrumental in her becoming a better person.
I was reminded after watching this how hard it can be to make a horror/comedy actually work. Sometimes there’s too much of one element and not enough of the other. Happy Death Day finds the right balance of wicked humor mixed with a bit of a throwback homage to the slasher films of the 80’s and 90’s. I honestly didn’t see this one coming and half expected it to let me down but I was pleasantly surprised and happy to add it to a list of horror films this year that has made me proud to be a fan.