‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘Friday the 13th’ in new horror comedy


Tree (Jessica Rothe) stars in ‘Happy Death Day’. Rothe in suspense scene with killer stalking her from behind. Used with permission from happydeathdaymovie.com

Jacob Sykuta

If you’re a fan of classic old-school horror movies, the kind that “Scream” turned into so cleverly,  you know how interchangeable they are: the masked killers who keep popping up in the most arbitrary ways as possible, the fresh and young generic youth actors who get carved into pieces, the whole thrusting-kitchen-knife atmosphere of “Psycho” exploitation.
There’s a very small sort of literal ingenuity to the premise of “Happy Death Day”, a collegiate slasher movie that contains all the usual tropes and clichés — including the title — into a knowing variation on “Groundhog Day”: the same horrifying scenario played out over and over again, with different endings each time. In a genre as basic as this one, this idea almost counts as inspiration.
On the campus of Bayview University, a Queen Bee sorority and party girl named Tree (Jessica Rothe) gets woken up on her birthday by the clang of the bell tower, only to learn that she’s in a guy’s dorm room. Did she sleep with Carter (Israel Broussard), the curly-haired cutie whose name she can’t recall?
She’s too hungover to even bother asking, and little does she realize that everything that now happens to her is going to be a repeated clockwork timeline: the Asian hipster who bursts into the room, the global-warming activist who tries to get her to sign a petition, the jock she had a date with who stops to ask why she never texted him, the office encounter with the professor she’s sleeping with, the sorority roommate who offers her a birthday cupcake, the electric blackout that lasts for three seconds, the stroll to the frat house where she’s about to have a surprise party, and — of course! — her encounter with the film’s deranged killer, who wears a hoodie and a plastic mask of the school mascot, which looks like the Big Boy icon turned into a grinning, gaping-eyed, fat-cheeked, one-toothed baby (think Hickman High School’s Kewpie mascot, only creepier).
Tree tries to fight him off, but to no avail. He slashes away and kills her. And it’s at that moment that she wakes up…on the very same day…all over again. It’s her fate to live the day once more, hopefully with a better ending. But for most of “Happy Death Day,” it doesn’t work out that way. Tree keeps trying to change the scenario — make a different choice, take a different path — but wherever she ends up, the killer has a way of showing up right then and there to finish her off. Which means that she’s both doomed, but also privileged to live that day again, giving her the opportunity to seize the day and alter her destiny. This makes Tree, in her way, a singular character in the history of slasher cinema: She’s the sleeping-around and inconsiderate sorority girl who gets bumped off, in addition to the virtuous heroine whose goodness protects her, all at the same time.
“Happy Death Day” is “Groundhog Day”  with a side of blood, but even if the movie isn’t all that clever, it’s just clever enough to get by. It’s the latest horror film from Blumhouse Productions, the company that gave us the magnificent “Get Out,” as well as “Split,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “The Purge,” and this one, like those last three, will appeal to an audience that wants a few new “ideas” mixed in with the stereotypical horror movie scares. I wish I could say that “Happy Death Day” was scary, but its murderous climaxes arrive with such precision that there isn’t much suspense to them. Yet, the movie is a repeated horror-thriller that’s just structurally different enough to get lost in. It’s a typical PG-13 horror film with one victim that has infinite lives, getting killed without much of the gore or fright that comes along with the R rating.
Jessica Rothe, however, who plays Tree, is no blank horror princess. She has a very expressive face, and she’s a ball of emotion who keeps the action rolling throughout the film. “Happy Death Day” presents a version of college mean-girl rivalry. The killer could be anyone in the movie, and in the one sequence with a “Scream”-like tinge of mockery, Tree makes a list of all the potential culprits and spies on them. The film has, of course, more red herrings than you can count, which means that when you finally think the killer is going to be unmasked, the revelation that you expect isn’t there.
Yet somehow that all seems unusually appropriate, since the entire movie is a rerun with variations. “Happy Death Day” falls short of mad inspiration, but it isn’t just scraps effortlessly taped together, it offers a unique spin on the “Groundhog Day” idea. This unique spin off should please the film’s intended audience. The slasher-meets-“Groundhog Day” concept is so flagrantly derivative it seems new, and more than that it almost feels right, since to watch almost any slasher film is to be trapped in a loop of mayhem. The nightmare doesn’t end; it just repeats. Although the ingenuity doesn’t exist in the movie idea, the direction that the movie goes makes “Happy Death Day” an entertaining mix of horror and comedy worth seeing.
Tree (Jessica Rothe) stars in ‘Happy Death Day’. Rothe in suspense scene with her killer stalking her from behind. Used with permission from happydeathdaymovie.com