Those under the impression that the meta hip-horror genre had crawled back into the grave with Scream 4 might find themselves experiencing déjà vu on watching Christopher B. Landon’s Happy Death Day. Mind, they won’t be alone in the feeling. If you’ve ever watched: Groundhog Day, Mean Girls, Halloween, Scooby-Doo, Clue, American Pie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or, indeed, Screams 1 to 4, this one’ll resurrect familiarity. As a chirpy take on the slasher genre – more playful than the Wes Craven send-ups – there’s a lot of fun to be had here but a feature of slightly less eclectic genre pickings would have been welcome.
At the start of the film, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is every bit a ‘mean girl’ of the Regina George mould. By the end? A Christmas Carol comes to mind. Waking up on her Birthday, hungover, in a stranger’s dorm, Tree struts through the rest of her day with little regard to the lives of those around her. She turns down cupcake offerings – ‘Sorry, too many carbs. Toodles!’ – and tries to fit in with the popular girls, each one horrendous. Throw into the mix her klutz of a hook-up from the night before, a doting former fling – who hasn’t clicked he’s not welcome – and an incident involving chocolate milk, and it’s just another regular day. Until, that is, Tree gets stabbed at night by a baby-face-masked assassin, and wakes up to do it all again on exactly the same day. Handily summing the plot in a later scene, Tree whines: ‘So, I’m just supposed to keep dying until I figure out who my killer is?!’
It’s no spoiler to say that it rapidly becomes very clear where this is going, not least due to the – all too knowing – debt the whole thing pays to Groundhog Day. Uncommon that it is to find a film – especially a horror – that’s weakest act is its opening, Happy Death Day does rather awkwardly plonk itself in the category. Bringing nothing new to the concept, the setup struggles not to seem a little tired. Not content from piggybacking Groundhog Day, the instant assimilation to other genres and specific films too feels half-baked. Fine, but distinctly unremarkable.
Credit, however, where credit is due. A gear shifts somewhere in the mix and quick wit, neat set pieces and one deliriously funny montage bring the film to life. Heading up the turnaround, once she’s given a more rounded character to work with, is a terrific Rothe, channelling that breezy, anti-damsel Sarah Michelle Gellar vibe. A charming – don’t scrutinise it – dynamic develops thanks to a rom-com subplot with Israel Broussard’s Carter – the hook up. So peppy is Happy Death Day hereon, that the film actually spins out a genuinely enjoyable ride and some surprisingly smart, fun. Running through the potential suspects, in a scene that would make Agatha Christie proud, Tree reels off ‘Danielle, Gregory, his wife, creepy Tim…’ climaxing, to Carter’s raised eyebrow, with ‘the Uber driver I spat on last week…what? Nobody’s perfect!’
Given the director, the genre-ripping actually makes a lot sense; Landon being a writer who has made a career from wheeling out umpteen Paranormal Activity sequels. Likewise, note a soundtrack from 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Bear McCreary and a production credit for Blumhouse, the studio rebooting Halloween. There’s nothing particularly scary – or gory, as it goes – in Scott Lobdell’s script, but this isn’t a film that has the surety to balance each of the plates it tries to spin.
Not without irony, Happy Death Day’s weak link is its re-play material and gimmick. At times splendid, what the film really could have done with is an exorcism of the time-loop strand, in favour of building on its excellent leads to develop character and just enjoy the more unique tenets of a carefree, and laugh-heavy, teen slasher.