Reuniting a variety of veterans of the Paranormal Activity and Insidious series, Happy Death Day offers a comedic take on the usual stalker-slasher fare, which may sound more promising than it actually proves to be. Lightweight and accessible enough to appeal to its short attention span PG-13 target audience, this is largely disposable entertainment that doesn’t suggest obvious franchisability or significant staying power.
Cultivating relatability shouldn’t be a problem, though, as the filmmakers offer up an easily identifiable mean-girl type as their protagonist who’s headed for a comeuppance. University sorority sister Theresa (Jessica Rothe), nicknamed “Tree,” displays all the traits of a privileged campus minority, including a haughty attitude, superior self-regard and shocking lack of empathy. So it’s a bit of a comedown when she wakes up totally hungover in the dorm room bed of her hipster-ish classmate Carter (Israel Broussard), who’s clearly not remotely in her rarified league. Swearing him to silence about their embarrassing hookup, she tries to go about her day unperturbed, but since it’s also her birthday there’s a certain level of unpredictability involved.
Predictably disposable entertainment.
She’s not pleased, for instance, with her roommate Lori’s (Ruby Modine) surprise birthday wishes or her estranged father’s attempts to call, opting to avoid any celebrations beyond paying a visit to her pre-med professor Gregory’s (Charles Aitken) office to unsuccessfully reignite their secret fling. Then her downer day ends in the worst possible way when some masked psycho attacks her that night on her way to a party, repeatedly stabbing Tree to death. Only her life isn’t over yet, as she discovers when she wakes up in Carter’s bed and her birthday from Hell begins all over again, ending abruptly with her inevitable murder.
Clearly it’s going to take some time for Tree to work things through and unmask her killer if she’s going to survive her life on auto-rewind. With each repetition of the incidents leading up to her demise, she discovers additional details about the circumstances surrounding her death and the identity of her killer, who wears the baby-faced mask of her university’s sports mascot. Enlisting Carter in her attempt to cheat death appears to be her only option, since snotty sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and her other housemates refuse to tolerate any slacking or slumming that might tarnish their organization’s reputation.
While scripter and comic-book scribe Scott Lobdell (Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men) quickly demonstrates the repetitive pattern provoking Tree’s recurring reincarnations within the film’s first 15 minutes, the exact mechanism behind her mysterious fate remains unexamined. Brisk pacing helps obscure this oversight, though, with Lobdell trickling out just enough information to justify another iteration of the cycle before delivering a couple of imaginative twists toward the film’s conclusion.
Rothe proves game for taking on Tree’s escalating tribulations, but doesn’t really get a chance to shine until her character goes on the offensive against her tormentor, devising some increasingly clever strategies to corner her killer. As her potential love interest, Broussard gets stuck with an underwritten part that could have benefited from a more focused motivation beyond just trying to get the girl.
Director Christopher Landon — who built his career with a series of scripts for the Paranormal Activity franchise before directing Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones — here disposes with much of the mythmaking that made that series so memorable. Although concentrating on delivering easily digestible situations and scene progressions, Landon does demonstrate some enticing visual flair that gets rather diminished by the repetitiveness of the plot.
The filmmakers’ appropriation of Groundhog Day‘s narrative template will probably be of little concern to younger viewers and doesn’t really grate as much as might be expected, even when the characters are forced to gratefully accept patently obvious life lessons.
Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Vesuvius Productions, Digital Riot Media
Cast: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Rachel Matthews, Jason Bayle, Phil Vu, Cariella Smith
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenwriter: Scott Lobdell
Producer: Jason Blum
Executive producers: Angela Mancuso, John Baldecchi, Couper Samuelson, Seth William Meier, Jeanette Volturno
Director of photography: Toby Oliver
Production designer: Cece M. De Stefano
Costume designer: Meagan McLaughlin Luster
Editor: Gregory Plotkin
Music: Bear McCreary
Rated PG-13, 96 minutes