"Happy Death Day," the story of a woman who's caught in an endless loop of her own death, follows in the footsteps of "Get Out" by taking familiar elements from the horror genre but delivering the scares with more wit, wisdom and wonder.
It starts with Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a sorority sister in desperate need of some sensitivity training, waking up in a strange college dorm room. Her meeting with the dorm's occupant, the sweet and naive Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), is the start of a string of humiliating moments magnified by it being Tree's birthday. Her suffering comes to an end when a man dressed in all black wearing a baby face mask attacks and kills her.
Tree wakes the next morning (that's really the same morning) with a major sense of deja vu and, ultimately, a murderous end to her day. It only takes Tree three or four times of being killed before she realizes that until she figures out the identity of her killer, the day will continue to repeat. But each time Tree awakens, she's a bit weaker.
The real killer here (figuratively speaking) is that the suspect list is massively long because of Tree's lack of caring for anyone but herself.
This is where "Happy Death Day" takes a different approach to the genre. Scott Lobdell's script features many tropes from the horror film world. It starts with the central figure of Tree, a beautiful blonde who always seems to be wearing the wrong shoes to run away from her killer. But in a twist, she ends up being both the victim and savior in this story.
"Happy Death Day" has a body count to rival most horror movies. But because almost all the deaths are of the same person, the count could also be seen as very small. Either way, the best place where "Happy Death Day" departs from the tried-and-true horror format is having Tree be the subject of all the attacks. In a standard horror movie, the only fun is guessing in which order those trapped in an old mansion, campground, sorority house, etc. will be killed. Since that's not in the equation, the focus goes from a morbid game of chance to a smart whodunit.
The film also features a creepy killer who covers his identity with a strange mask. A hockey mask for a killer immediately suggests there's violence in the heart of the person wearing it. The chubby cheeked baby face mask shouldn't be that creepy but there's a strangeness to the design that makes it work.
Tree relives her death day repeatedly, and it's obvious that somehow, the killer is going to find her. Even with that knowledge, Lobdell's script is so smartly written that each ending comes as a surprise.
There's a lot more that could be said about the smart way Lobdell plays out the story, but that would be unfair to the moviegoer. Just know, his writing is on target to the point that he doesn't cheat with the plot and leaves no story strand dangling.
A lot of credit for "Happy Death Day" being worth seeing again and again is the performance by Rothe ("Mary + Jane"). She is believable as the snotty sorority sister, the scared and confused murder victim, and the strong woman who not only finds clues about her killer with each death but learns a lot about herself. It's a demanding task because Rothe is in every scene, but she steps up no matter if it means dying or trying.
The film also has time for the kind of levity that rarely pops up in a serious horror film. One of the jokes is a reflection of how this story of living the same day over and over sounds a lot like the plot of the Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day." When it's pointed out to her, Tree says she's never heard of the film or Murray.
Director Christopher Landon ("Scouts Guide the Zombie Apocalypse") has created in "Happy Death Day" a film that has scary moments but is not burdened by the endless slaughter that so many horror film makers mistakenly use. The filmmaker and writer also never give into the kind of gratuitous sex that is always a signal in a standard horror film that someone — or a couple — is about to die.
If all you want out of a horror film is blood and guts, "Happy Death Day" isn't the right movie for you. Anyone looking to enjoy some scares while trying to figure out a very clever mystery should plan on seeing "Happy Death Day" ... should plan on seeing "Happy Death Day" ... should plan on seeing "Happy Death Day" ... should plan on seeing "Happy Death Day" ...
HAPPY DEATH DAY
3 out of 4 stars
Cast: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Rachel Matthews.
Director: Christopher Landon
Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language, partial nudity
Running time: 93 minutes.