Happy Death Day is one of the best surprises of 2017. This seemingly throwaway teen slasher flick turns out to be a sneaky black comedy version of Groundhog Day if Bill Murray were being murdered every day. The film was directed by Christopher Lambert whose résumé is riddled with mediocre screenplays for the Paranormal Activity franchise and whose first feature was the idiotic Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, which leaves me to wonder where he’s been hiding this version of his work?
Happy Death Day stars budding superstar Jessica Rothe as Tree Gelbman, a perky blonde college girl raised on the aesthetics of Mean Girls and Legally Blonde. Her life is lived one party to the next and one partner to the next, until one day she wakes up and finds that the nightmare she had the night before about being murdered by a psycho in a baby mask, was actually real and that she is, for no discernible reason, reliving the day of her death over and over again.
Like Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day doesn’t have much interest in why Tree is stuck in a loop, rather the filmmakers are obsessed with what she does with her repeated days. These break down into several scenarios familiar from Groundhog Day but each with a fun little twist. Tree’s predicament seems like it might be framed for typical slasher fare but instead, the film is infused with a darkly comic, almost slapstick, take on Tree’s predicament in which she constantly tries to anticipate her killer and fails only to wake up comically frustrated by her latest death.
Director Landon crafts a quite clever story that does well to establish a number of potential murderers, among them Tree’s roommate, her sorority rival, a dopey frat guy, a weirdo stalker, Tree’s dad, her love interest Carter (Israel Broussard), and an escaped serial killer. Watching Tree spend some of her days investigating her own death proves to be a good deal of fun, especially her failures in which she is murdered in increasingly unlikely ways.
The aplomb with which Jessica Rothe attacks this role is the film’s greatest comic weapon. At once I was genuinely, emotionally invested in Tree’s situation, and then I was laughing at her increasing frustration with the situation while still feeling for her. Yes, at times she’s quite a "Mean Girl" stereotype, but Rothe is so winning that her redemption arc becomes quite fun and has a terrifically dark comic payoff. Rothe is going to be a big star one day as she is not only beautiful but she’s a badass with a quick wit and terrific dramatic chops. She has a natural charisma that only true movie stars have.
I really, really did not expect much of Happy Death Day. Part of the reason for that is that it’s October, and I am used to being sold lame horror movies this time of the year. Indeed, Happy Death Day has been sold as something of a lame horror movie. What a great surprise it was to find that the film isn’t so much a horror movie as it is a black comedy with a horror premise. The film completely upended my expectations with its witty direction and dark sense of humor.
Happy Death Day is one of my favorite movies of the fall thus far. It’s not among the best movies of the year, but in a year where the horror genre has been bereft of greatness, Happy Death Day stands out. Sure, it stretches the notion of a horror movie by not being particularly scary or gory, but it does have multiple bloody murders in it so I’m counting it. In reality, the film defies categorization because it works best as black comedy, but that’s not really a perfect category either. The fact that it defies simple categorization is yet another reason why I like Happy Death Day so much.