Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello
Director: Christopher B. Landon
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for Cheekiness Towards Violence and Sex
Release Date: October 13, 2017
Legitimately great remakes can come from both good or bad originals. The key is to offer a fresh spin. Happy Death Day is not officially a remake of Groundhog Day, but the influence is obvious (and cheekily acknowledged within the narrative). So I can believe that this new splashy horror flick was conceived as a redo of the Bill Murray time loop classic but with a slasher spin, and if indeed it was, that reveals a lot about why it succeeds as well as it does.
The film jolts into its adrenaline-fueled default as college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe, probably best known as the roommate in the green dress from La La Land) shoots awake on the morning of her birthday in an unfamiliar bed after a night of blacked out debauchery. The day ends with her stabbed to death by a killer in a creepy baby mask (which is inexplicably also the school mascot). But it’s her lucky day, or her eternally unlucky day, as she then wakes up in the same spot on the same date and meets her demise all over again, and then comes back to life again and repeats it all for an endless cycle of death and rebirth. But living like a phoenix ain’t so fire when you’re stuck in an eternal loop of cattiness, superficiality, and a refusal to confront lasting emotional pain.
Tree’s story matches up with that of Phil Connors not just in terms of mechanics but also spiritually. Ultimately, Groundhog Day is about the path to becoming a better person by unavoidably being confronted with past mistakes. Happy Death Day’s purpose is very much the same, surprisingly so for its genre but undeniably so regardless. A little more specifically, it examines how the ever-lingering possibility of death can spur someone on to living her best life by being the best possible version of herself. Death also has a major presence in Groundhog Day, but mostly on the edges (Phil’s resets don’t require him to bite it); in Happy Death Day, it is writ large.
Grief and loss loom uncomfortably in Tree’s life. Her mother, with whom she shared a birthday, passed away a few years earlier, and she has refused to really confront her lingering emptiness. Instead, she hides behind drinking, random hookups, and catty banter with her sorority sisters. Initially, she comes off as a typical slasher archetype: the superficial queen bitch whose demise the audience craves. But the loop is utilized to crack away at that cliché and uncover the genuine person underneath, allowing the audience to instead fall in love with her.
If this all sounds unwelcomingly weighty, it should be noted that the emotional import is handled efficiently and entertainingly enough that it does not get in the way of the wildly intense horror camp. The rating may be PG-13, but there is little restraint in the dialogue’s colorfulness. Scott Lobdell’s witty script displays influence from the likes of Mean Girls, Heathers, nighttime soaps, and other self-aware horror films. A few choice lines include “Would you please stop staring at me like I took a dump on your mom’s head?” or surmising that déjà vu means that “someone’s thinking of you while they’re masturbating.” Even sillier outbursts like, “Show your face, you pussy!” earn their stripes with the power of convicted delivery.
Happy Death Day wisely leaves out any prosaic explanation about why Tree is stuck in the loop. There is some exploration about how the injuries of each death carry over into the new repeated day, but that thread is ultimately discarded. Focusing on that element only when it is useful is a bit of a cheat, but an understandable one. From a mystery standpoint, Happy Death Day is much better at investigating the killer’s identity than it is at examining metaphysics. Like a lot of great twisty thrillers, the narrative leads you right to the culprit but then swerves into a detour. It is enough to make you hysterically scream right along with Tree at the big philosophical questions of a life gone topsy-turvy.
Happy Death Day is Recommended If You Like: Scream crossed with Mean Girls but wish both of those films had been influenced by Groundhog Day
Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Tylenols