Some inspiration but lacks imagination
With a little more emphasis on horror, and perhaps an actual landline phone waking up the main character up day-after-day, Happy Death Day would be very reminiscent of a mid-1980s/early-1990s horror film crossed with light echoes of a John Hughes movie. For me, that was this micro-budget Blumhouse film's ceiling and the fact that it didn't come very close to my expectations but charmed me all the more proves that what it has up its sleeves is at least capable of conjuring up modest enjoyment.
Happy Death Day follows Tree (Jessica Rothe), a college socialite who wakes up in Carter's (Israel Broussard) dorm after a night of partying with a brutal hangover to the sound of her incessant ringtone. It's her father phoning, and she's not up for another awkward birthday between the two of them after whatever it is happened to her mother. She goes about her day normally, crossing paths with her bitchy sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews) as well as her roommate Lori (Shameless' Ruby Morine), who are both planning a surprise party for her later that evening. After a day of going to class only to get a pass from the professor she's sleeping with, Tree's night ends by being viciously attacked and murdered by a hooded figure with a baby-mask, representing the school's football team.
Tree wakes up, shaken and disoriented, in Carter's bed, doomed to repeat her birthday in an endless cycle that concludes the same way - with her murder at the hands of this mysterious person. Almost every day, she confides in the amiable Carter and takes notes of the behaviors of those around her, sniffing for a motive.
Even if you're too young or simply unaware of the similarities of the Bill Murray comedy classicGroundhog Day (which this film references in a beautifully meta way), you might recognize the premise from Before I Fall earlier this year. That film revolved around another young woman living the same day on repeat, however, learning far quicker than Tree does that infinite lives require immense possibilities to check one's behavior throughout their daily routine.
Happy Death Day doesn't feel as committed as both Before I Fall and Groundhog Day did to embracing or condemning the actions of the lead character, as it doesn't really appear to be committed to anything in terms of genre. The film is never chilling enough to be a horror film and never broadly funny enough to be a comedy, so what unfolds is a fluid hybrid that also finds great limitations in its PG-13 rating. This is clearly Blumhouse's marginal invitation to younger horror fans that aren't allowed the privilege of seeing R-rated films without a parental guardian, and on that note, it could be a lot worse (something like Rings or The Darkness should serve as cautionary tales for how indifferent or even downright bad this material could be).
At least Happy Death Day has some inspiration behind its premise, and its actors, particularly Broussard, create charismatic, if thin, archetypes with whom one can sympathize thanks to their well-meaning nature. You could argue Rothe's character is unlikable, to which I would agree but also lessen the death-grip by saying she's not much different from most college women with the "sisterhood" mindset, making her character realistically drawn in the regard of her pervasive self-centeredness.
The film was directed by Christopher B. Landon, who has done a lot to be interesting given what little he's done. His first mainstream venture came in the form of Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a strange, Spanish-centric spinoff of the popular franchise, and was followed by Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, an overall exciting piece of horror-comedy dampened for most of the public by its unfortunate theatrical release (it was shafted by most non-AMC theaters). Happy Death Day is more like the latter than the former, but lacks the same kind of imagination that was present in Landon's energetic take on a zombie apocalypse. The film either needed a greater sense of danger or a scene akin to Landon's Scouts Guide involving an unironic use of Soulja Boy's "Crank That." Unfortunately, we never fully get either with this film.
Steve's Grade: C+