Again and Again: “Happy Death Day” is A Surprisingly Subversive Horror-Comedy

Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) just can’t catch a break. After waking up in a strange boy’s (The Blind Ring’s Israel Broussard) dorm room after a night of heavy drinking, Tree is fighting a killer headache and must do the walk of shame, in which she tries to unsuccessfully attempts to dodge a pesky student protestor, a guy she’s been ghosting, and her sorority sisters. Later, she will be confronted with the wife of the professor she’s been having an affair with, but now she’s late for her surprise party because there’s a masked murderer trying to kill her. Oh, did I mention it’s also her birthday?

If this sounds like life is playing some cruel joke on her, then just wait till you hear the punchline. When the masked killer does in fact kill Tree (and they do), she wakes up again on the morning of her birthday, doomed to live out the same excruciating day again and again, and again until she can solve the mystery of her murder. 

Comic book writer Scoot Lobdell penned the screenplay for Happy Death Day, which borrows its clever premise from the famous Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, and was clearly inspired by the biting dialogue that made the Scream films so memorable. Director Christopher B. Landon (Disturbia) keeps the film tight and lean; at no point is there a moment that drags or feels that it could have been left on the cutting room floor. He follows our protagonist very closely, and with each twist and turn, it becomes very apparent that the film belongs to no one else but Rothe. 

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Prior to Happy Death Day, Rothe’s biggest gig was as one of Emma Stone’s roommates in La La Land. Here, she delivers the type of “a star is born” performances that make great use of her comedic timing, natural screen presence and charisma. Tree is not exactly a lovable heroine. She’s generally rude, and doesn’t seem to have much interest in anyone or anything around her, but the actress makes her someone worth watching, and rooting for. With each death, Tree comes back weaker more and confused about who her killer could be, but Rothe takes this an opportunity to add a new layer to her character. Even when things get a little sappy in the third act, Rothe completely sells us on Tree’s decision to turn over a new leaf. So much so, that the film’s (smart) decision to invalidate her mea culpa and deliver the final plot twist feels completely unexpected even if you sort of saw it coming. 

The supporting players prove to be just as entertaining even if it feels like they’re orbiting around Rothe. This is especially true of Rachel Matthews who plays the fast-talking queen of mean Danielle. Matthews leans so far into her superficial sorority girl and goes for the jugular; each line reading feels as deadly as Tree’s masked killer. I was still laughing at each new way she managed to dryly deliver the line, “Our tuition dollars hard at work.” 

For a film that’s about repetition, Happy Death Day proves that there are still ways to reinvent the wheel and add surprises to a genre that oftentimes gets bogged down in doing the same thing over and over. 

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Grade: B+

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