The repetitive template of “Groundhog Day” has been used in teen movies before, recently in the maudlin YA thriller “Before I Fall,” where it proved not to work at all. It’s somewhat more successfully employed in this horror comedy, because of the knowing winks it makes toward the audience, from the stop-and-start Universal logo at the beginning to the allusion to the Bill Murray comedy at the end—but the movie is neither scary nor funny enough to survive even to Halloween.
The affected party is Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a hard-as-nails sorority girl who wakes up one morning—her birthday, as it happens—in the dorm room of cute freshman Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). She doesn’t remember how she got there, having had a party night that left her blotto, but all she wants is to get back to the room she shares with sweet Lori (Ruby Modine), a medical student, in the house run by demanding sorority head Danielle (Rachel Matthews). To get there she walks imperially across campus, encountering fellow students along the way engaged in activities designed to reappear, with slight changes, in future iterations.
Once back, Tree rushes off to class with Dr. Butler (Charles Aitken), a married man with whom she’s having an affair. That night Tree is off to another party when she finds a birthday toy in a campus tunnel. More importantly, she’s accosted by someone in silly mask that appears to have some meaning to the students of Bayfield College, who kills her with a knife.
Thereupon, she wakes up in Carter’s room again, and it’s her birthday once more. She goes through the same routine she’s experienced before—with some minor changes—befuddled and a bit scared. And once again she’s killed by that masked figure at the end of it, though in a different place.
That triggers a return to Carter’s room, again on the morning of her birthday. This continues repeatedly, with the day’s scenario getting increasingly confused and Tree’s nasty personality gradually mellowing, especially toward Carter, who believes her crazy story and tries to help. The introduction of mad killer Joseph Tombs (Rob Mellow) to the mix leads to some fast action on Tree’s part not only to elude being killed yet again but also to trying to identify the killer while ensuring that others aren’t hurt.
Scott Lobdell’s script doesn’t follow the “Groundhog” paradigm all that closely, using it merely for a sort of theme-and-variations approach instead, as Tree’s day changes pretty radically from one iteration to the next. And when it finally offers a revelation of who the would-be killer is, it does so with a combination of action and comedy that, unfortunately, falls flatter than the villain’s smash-up on a sidewalk after a fall from a third-story window.
The movie is spiffier than most of today’s teen-based horror flicks—director Christopher Landon keeps things moving for the most part (though Tree’s initial encounter with the masked killer is dragged out overmuch)—and it avoids the excess of blood and gore that is so commonplace nowadays, leaving things to the imagination more often than not (as in the killing of a frat boy named Nick, played by Blaine Kern III, at one point). It also has a couple of agreeable leads in Rothe, who morphs from mean girl to sweet girl pretty well, and Broussard, who’s handsome enough to make his initial dismissal as a dweeb totally implausible. And Matthews proves an adept comedienne, making Danielle a doofus dictator whose attempts to turn every moment to her advantage are only a little less overbearing than what we saw in “Scream Queens.”
The picture is unusually bright and polished for a Blumhouse production, with Toby Oliver’s cinematography and Gregory Plotkin’s editing both solid. “Happy Death Day” is better than most movies of its kind, but better is just not good enough.