“Groundhog Day” (1993) is of course the touchstone of the “repeating the same day” genre, so when another film comes along with that premise, it’s intriguing, but it also gives me pause: Will it merely repeat “Groundhog Day” for a younger generation, or will it have something new to say? Available via Redbox and streaming, “Happy Death Day” (2017) is a mixture. It starts off too much in the same vein, but gets more creative as it moves toward a satisfying ending.
Written by “X-Men” comics veteran Scott Lobdell – who also penned some early “Buffy” comics – and directed by “Paranormal Activity” franchise veteran Christopher Landon, “Happy Death Day” takes the idea that you could improve yourself if given a bunch of do-overs, and also throws in a murder mystery.
Teresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is murdered every night, and it’s easy to see why. Within 10 minutes, there are 20 people with motive to kill this self-centered college student, who storms around campus being rude to everyone – including insulting a date’s penis length for taking her to Subway. Rothe commits to the material, though, and as Tree becomes a better person, we warm up to her. Potential love interest Carter (Israel Broussard), who has a Marty-from-“Gilmore Girls” vibe, helps her somewhat, but mostly Tree is on her own, because she doesn’t feel like explaining the situation to Carter every time the day resets.
The killer, who wears a cartoon baby mask that is supposed to represent team spirit (apparently these are the Bayfield Babies?), is a combination of vicious and clumsy like “Scream’s” Ghostface. Aside from some jump scares, “Happy Death Day” isn’t particularly scary. In fact, it alternates between moods. Tree smoothing over hurt feelings with her dad is serious, but when she belches and farts at dinner because Carter won’t remember it anyway, it’s humorous. Being a murder victim is obviously not fun, but those scenes gradually become darkly humorous in a “Final Destination” manner.
Yes, this is “Groundhog Day” for millennials. But the murder mystery does add a wrinkle, and as the slow-starting film blasts through a series of fake-out endings, it reaches new heights.
If you like this genre, “Before I Fall” (2017) – advertised on the “Happy Death Day” Blu-ray, naturally – seems to offer a more steadily serious take on the material. Also using this premise, Netflix’s new film “When We First Met” offers a comedic mood. “Happy Death Day” throws a lot of moods at the screen, all of which are fine in the moment, but none of which make a lasting impact. Like a birthday cupcake, it’s not nutritious, but it still tastes good.