Since Happy Death Day is billed as a horror movie, let’s start with the most horrific part: Its heroine is forced to walk the same grueling walk of shame — starting with waking up hungover in the same dweeby stranger’s bed, and ending with slipping past the same nosy housemates — over and over and over. That’s not exactly what makes it a horror movie, but then again — isn’t it?
In Blumhouse’s newest cheap-o horror delight, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is a sorority girl living her own Groundhog Day nightmare. But this isn’t just any day: It is, as the title suggests, the day of her death. And that moment of death — be it by stabbing, drowning, or bursting into flames — gets multiple encores, too, forcing her to reset her day and wake up, yet again, in a stranger’s tiny dorm-room bed. She’s a little more worse for the wear each time she wakes up: the day resets, but internally, her body still shows signs of damage. A doctor tells her she should be dead. And given that the Groundhog Day conceit has long felt like a Sartrean metaphor for limbo anyway, who’s to say, for most of the movie’s runtime, that she isn’t? Tree goes to the fictional Bayfield University, whose mascot is a single-toothed, grinning little babe. Whoever is out there trying to kill her is donning one of the school’s cute-but-macabre baby masks, which means, among other things, that the killer could be anyone on campus. It also makes for a comfy metaphor: A life ending at the hands of a killer whose life, per the costume, is only just beginning.
It’s a pretty rough deal, not least because it happens to be Tree’s birthday. It’s also the birthday of her dead mother — and it also happens, this year, to be the day a murderous convict escapes from a nearby hospital, which may or may not be related to Tree’s murder. All of that, plus the Groundhog Day conceit, plus a budding romance we haven’t even gotten to yet and the sorority-girl drama that elevates it all to deliriously realized comedy, adds up to a suspiciously overstuffed movie, like a plate of nachos so overloaded with toppings the chips disintegrate into meaningless sog. As per usual with Blumhouse’s best movies, that’s an asset, not a hindrance. Blumhouse is already well known for making cheap movies on the fly that make a ton of money. There’s been no greater example of that this year than Jordan Peele’s breakout hit Get Out, but the Blumhouse roster is also stacked with the likes of Paranormal Activity and its many sequels, three of which Happy Death Day director Christopher Landon also wrote.
Happy Death Day is a classic example of Blumhouse style: a simple, even familiar conceit bent in wicked directions. What’s refreshing in this case is the tone. The movie starts off all horror and gore, with Tree getting stalked, chased, and stabbed over and over until she catches on to the fact that what’s happening isn’t merely déjà vu. But when she does catch on, the movie becomes peppier, even upbeat. There’s a wonderfully funny montage of Tree wising up with camo and amatuer spy tactics, making her way through a list of potential killers that she has to rewrite every time she dies. If anything, this movie feels like more of an upbeat college movie by the end, with its dashes of comedy, than it does an outright horror movie. It reminds me of the teen comedy-thrillers I grew up with in that regard, movies like Teaching Mrs. Tingle and Jawbreaker — dark teen comedies, even satires, with a horrific tinge. Everything gruesome here is funny, too. When Tree bitches out a housemate via text, the annoying frat boy they’re fighting over gets stabbed to death in the background. It’s as if the killer were actually saving her from an even worse fate: bad sex.
It’s all a humorous gloss on teen self-discovery. Tree, it should be said, is a little bit of a mean girl at the start of all this. She’s having an affair with a married professor; she’s living in a house of sorority girls whose overbearing rules about what to eat and who to be are alienating, even cruel. She’s got her baggage; she has no real friends. When she sits down to make a list of the people who might want her dead, they include a few too many people from the service industry. She’s a brat. This repetitive-death curse is actually a benefit, the movie shows, insofar as it gives Tree a chance to get her shit together. She kindles things with a puppy-faced guy named Carter (played by Israel Broussard, of The Bling Ring) and altogether learns to reevaluate her bullshit. To be clear, this is not really a morality tale, but it gleefully imitates one. As Tree, Rothe helpfully offers up the slices of sparkling wit and wistful charm that make you imagine this would have been an ideal vehicle for an early-career Blake Lively.
The movie is less scary than refreshing. Happy Death Day is expected to make more money this weekend than the week-old Blade Runner 2049, which feels just. Happy Death Day isn’t a better movie — 2049, for its flaws, still has its share of wonders — but it’s certainly a better bargain, with its paltry budget of $4.8 million (compared to 2049’s $150 million). It’s a worthwhile comparison. Both movies are candid rip-offs of what came before. But it’s Happy Death Day, which cost a pittance, and which becomes original by embracing its status as a copy, that captures the spirit of the real thing.