Those under the impression that the meta hip-horror genre had finally crawled back beneath the soil with Scream 4 might find themselves experiencing quite pronounced déjà vu in 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. A chirpy take on the slasher genre – more playful than the Wes Craven send-ups – whilst there’s a lot of fun to be had here, a feature of slightly less eclectic genre pickings would have been very 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 trying to fit in with the popular girls – who, naturally, are all pretty horrendous human beings. 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 the premise of Groundhog Day. Uncommon that it is to find a film (especially a horror) that’s weakest act is its opening, Happy Death Day does plonk itself in the category rather awkwardly. 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, as a gear shifts somewhere in the mix with some quick wit, neat set pieces and one deliriously funny live, die, repeat montage. Heading up the turnaround, once she’s given a more rounded character to work with, is a terrific central performance by 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), with whom Rothe shares believable chemistry. So peppy is Happy Death Day hereon, that the film actually spins out a genuinely enjoyable ride, and whole lot of, 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.