Written by: Scott Lobdell
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton
Not all concepts need to be restricted to a particular genre in order to work, as different interpretations can make for fun utilizations for the purposes of entertaining in their own way. The Groundhog Day time loop idea may not have worked well for that film but has given other films a fun storytelling device to make more fun and engaging features and Happy Death Day certainly falls into that particular category as it combines its thrills and comedy to make a thoroughly entertaining film.
Waking up on her classmate’s bed after some heavy drinking, Tree (Jessica Rothe) goes through her day but then gets murdered only to wake up in the same place. She discovers she has found herself in a time loop and takes the opportunity to restart her day each time she gets killed to find out her killer and end the loop once for all.
From its trailer to the translation on screen, Happy Death Day takes a familiar idea but makes it its own in such a fun and engaging manner. The idea of being stuck in a time loop brings its own dread and a sense of nihilism, but this film adds the wrinkle of this loop occurring because the protagonist continually gets killed by some masked murderer. It takes the funny aspects of the premise and then turns into a slasher and it all comes together to make such an enjoyable experience.
As Tree gets to repeat the same day on multiple occasions, the tendency could lean to this not being such a bad situation seeing as she skips death with each attempt, but this film does the smart thing in creating actual stakes. All of her deaths do not come with a free pass after all, which makes the race to find the killer and stopping them all the more important for the story. This, however, does not stop it from having fun. The time loop allows for some alterations to the same scenes from Tree walking through the campus naked in one of them to just blowing everything off. The balance of finding the humor and horror of this all leads to this being a successful film. At no point does it feel repetitive because each kill comes together in unique ways and only further frustrating Tree in this journey.
Additionally, being stuck in this loop allows for some time for her Tree to reflect on her decision-making and how she found herself in the position she’s in. The young woman drank too much, needing to crash in someone’s residence hall, while also ignoring the calls of her father and being involved in a salacious relationship. Each of these aspects gets addressed, which allows for a nice character arc for Tree to undergo throughout the film’s runtime. This typically does not get associated with slashers seeing as it becomes mostly about the kills but this attention to character work helps Happy Death Day stand out amongst others within this subgenre. An emotional undercurrent runs through Tree’s experience and the eventual conversation she has with her father really just sums it all up.
With it being a slasher film, plenty of tension gets built in order to create some jump scares and while none of these moments truly blew me away, it works well enough for what works in these kill scenes. In many of these sequences where Tree gets killed, it more so feels like a joke of her thinking she finally escaped the grips of the killer before finding death once again. It once more proves this film finds the right balance of being initially scary and then funny later on because with it continually being frightening, it would lose its edge eventually. It shows proper restraint from the filmmakers.
As the lead of this film, Jessica Rothe feels like a revelation. With limited time on the big screen prior to her taking on the role of Tree she absolutely knocks it out of the park. She sticks the landing on every aspect of this character from being scream queen, source of humor, and then working through the emotional moments. Rothe handles every aspect like a professional and just helps elevate the material to a new level. I cannot wait to see how her career expands because she certainly has a bright future ahead of her.
Borrowed concept but one done with such a high degree of fun, Happy Death Day works in establishing stakes and finding the comedic and frightening aspects of this story. The conclusion may not work as well when recollecting the rest of the story but the build-up and the journey towards said finale makes for an entertaining and raucous affair. So much to enjoy and it serves as a wonderful spotlight for Jessica Rothe to show she can thrive as an actor.