Director: Christopher B. Landon
Screenplay: Scott Lobdell
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken
Runtime: 96 Minutes
The premise of a character reliving the same day over and over again – mainly popularised by 1993’s Groundhog Day – is a strange and often well-utilised form of narrative device that can be interestingly applied to different genres. What it works best at is using its structure as a means of transforming an initially unlikable protagonist or figure into a better person through trial and error experiences and repeatedly beating them up over their own faulty decision making.
Happy Death Day is no exception to this rule but its a good use of the premise, aligning the audience with a bitchy and self-centred sorority college girl, Theresa "Tree" Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), who is killed on her birthday by a masked assailant and must relive the same day repeatedly until her killer is stopped.
While the film is rather bloodless even given its position as a mainstream horror picture, the fun it has in seeing what it can play around with within the confines of the genre is its best hook. Besides the gradual transformation of Tree into a less selfish and more likable and in touch human being, it gives the role of the typical blonde caricature of slasher movies some real agency as she gradually figures out the identity of her killer.
The look of the killer is minimalist but rather striking. The giant baby-faced mask that is donned over a black hoodie was designed by Tony Gardner of Scream fame, and it’s a creepy look that’s strong enough to linger as long as the obnoxious ringtone that punctuates the start of every new (same) day.
Making the most of its small-scale production the design and layout of everything is never overcomplicated and feel like components of a world in motion around the character. It looks and sounds good, with a strong score by Bear McCreary, and the performance by Jessica Rothe is charismatic and enjoyable throughout. The variations on the kills are silly and enjoyable, and the oscillating genres it balances like comedy, satire and romance feel like they’re all working on the same level.
Happy Death Day never oversteps its bounds as a slasher picture, but its the entertainment value in watching the structure play out and the well-drawn characters bounce off each other that keep it going. It doesn’t have much else to say or work with, but the twists and occasional scares are good and it will definitely play well on repeated viewings.