What would you do if you found yourself repeatedly re-experiencing your own murder? It’s a scary and compelling premise, but in answering that question, Happy Death Day aims less at horror devotees and more at teenagers, taking a breezy, CW-esque approach to questions of fate. As a result, the movie offers sufficient surface pleasures, while a deeper, darker satisfaction remains elusive.
Jessica Rothe (La La Land) stars as Tree, the insensitive sorority girl trapped in this morbid variation on Groundhog Day. After being killed by a baby-masked attacker on her birthday, she then wakes up and faces that same day again…and again and again, suffering a different demise each time. Instead of arming herself, setting a trap or taking some other course of action that would end the story in about 30 minutes, Tree devotes her recurring days to deducing her stalker’s identity, to the accompaniment of a pop soundtrack. Along the way, she learns to Become a Better Person; the movie is as much about Tree’s atonement as it is about solving the mystery.
Director Christopher Landon (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) and screenwriter and comics veteran Scott Lobdell maintain modest tension and humor as they deliver tried-and-true genre standbys like loud music jump-scares, an unnaturally deserted hospital and red-herring suspects. Rothe is an appealing enough actor to engage us in her plight, and the final resolution is satisfyingly clever. Still, it’s unlikely that anyone over Tree’s age will find Happy Death Day a viewing experience they’ll want to repeat.
By Michael Gingold