Now that it’s October, it’s time for the annual slate of slasher horror films to make their way to theaters. This week’s new release is Happy Death Day, an edgier, sexier, Halloween version of Groundhog Day. Directed by Christopher Landon (various Paranormal Activity films) and written by Scott Lobdell (X-Men TV series), Happy Death Day doesn’t do much to add anything new to the genre of Groundhog Day-like stories, but it manages to be a tolerable, at times even fun, 90 minutes of sitting in the theater.
The day begins the morning of September 18, in a college dorm room. Tree (Jessica Roth) has just woken up from a night of partying and no recollection of going home with the shy boy-next-door type Carter (Israel Broussard). After leaving his room with a pretty clear message of pretending like she was never there, Tree walks back through campus to her sorority house. Her walk is of course the time to take stalk of the particulars of that day — a student tries to get her to sign a petition to save the Earth, a couple hangs out on the lawn and is caught in the sprinkler system, fraternity pledges are finishing a challenge, a car alarm sounds, she runs into one-date Tim. And because we’re familiar with the way Groundhog Day stories work, it’s obvious we’re supposed to remember these little moments as they are the clues to the repetitiveness of the day(s) to come. At the sorority house, we meet Danielle, the typical sorority house president type that never goes beyond the bonds of her stereotype. Up in Tree’s room we meet the roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine of Shameless) and find out that it’s Tree’s birthday when Lori tries to give her a cupcake and Tree throws it in the trash. Other important set ups in the first version of September 18 — Tree is sleeping with her married professor and she dodges her father’s calls because she hates her birthday for some reason that is yet to be determined. The day culminates in a familiar cloak and dagger chase sequence when a masked individual tries, and succeeds, in stabbing Tree to death.
And then the day starts over. Each day starts in Carter’s dorm room, and each day ends in Tree’s death. The concept of having the chance to solve one’s own murder is intriguing enough, but somehow, the film never really tries to go anywhere with it. Instead, it breezes by Tree’s investigation in a montage of crossing names off a list. Some of the set up in early scenes never come back for any significant pay off. Probably what the film does best is Tree’s relationship with her mom. Though only glimpsed through phone videos, Tree’s mother is the emotional center of the film, the importance of which is a slow unveiling that gives weight to her lasting impact on her daughter. If anything, that’s the best thing Happy Death Day succeeds at.
The rest of it, including why the day keeps starting over, who’s targeting Tree and why, gets lost somewhere in a logistical graveyard, where all logic goes to die. There’s no rhyme or reason for what’s going on, and the final reveal attempts a back track explanation, but doesn’t quite follow through on making this convoluted murder attempt make sense. Still, if you ignore the lacking story beats, the film somehow turns the attempt into a fun failure. Jessica Roth is charismatic in her first major starring role, and Israel Broussard is charming as hell as Tree’s confidant during her 24 plus hour madness.
But there’s better horror out there. There’s better horror-comedy out there, too. What it all really comes down to, though, is if there’s going to be another Groundhog Day film attempt, there has to be a better justification for it.