Blumhouse’s spunky time-loop thriller Happy Death Day plays like a CW-ized Edge Of Tomorrow rehash with the heart of Scream Queens – except, like, totally without self-awareness. Whether Christopher Landon’s vision takes itself too seriously, not serious enough or just plain skimps on horror, Scott Lobdell’s story is basic with a capital “Blah.” That’s not to say fun isn’t had, it’s just all a collegiate Mean Girls schtick that never matches up to university slaughterers like Sorority Row. For a movie about temporal anomalies and never-ending birthday horrors, there’s something unjustly mundane about a glorified slasher drama without the decency to get wild with kills. Not that its PG-13 rating would dare show such bloodshed anyway…
Jessica Rothe stars as Tree Gelbman, a Kappa sorority girl who wakes up in Carter Davis’ (Israel Broussard) dumpy dorm room after yet another drunken blackout. She scurries across campus back home (grilled by sisters), to class (late), to her teacher Gregory’s (Charles Aitken) office (cheating husband), and then finally back home again to prepare for her next Greek life party – except tonight isn’t like the rest. En route to drunken debauchery, a man in a baby mask stalks, traps and kills Tree, only for her to wake up in Carter’s bed anew. Was it all a dream? After the fourth reset, the unbelievable becomes reality. No explanation, just a clockwork rerun of death.
In truth, Rothe – playing a girl named “Tree” – owns her role as a mystical Black Mirror wannabe with unlimited lives. At first, she’s panicked and mascara-streaked, much like many a young starlet has pulled off. It takes time for Tree – or Happy Death Day in general – to become the confident grab-hold hero who stops running. Shades of Gillian Jacobs brushed with Greek goddess wit (and stinking of alcohol).
Rachel Matthews is a standout as cutthroat Kappa head-bitch Danielle, but Rothe rises above given Tree’s redemptive arc that shames sorority perfectionism and allows for sharp, biting attitudes to best a day with no cheery ending. Why not walk naked through the quad when you know nighttime just brings death once again? Matthews is a tyrannical yoga-pants dictator when it comes to Kappa laughs, but Rothe shows promise upon any number of inconceivable realizations. Performances – especially the lead – are not the issue.
Instead, blame a paint-by-numbers murder mystery that cobbles together twenty different endings (exaggeration) and red herrings better described as dead fish. Clues and hints are wholly disregarded once the next cycle begins, and if not, Tree is whiffing on personality build-ups that seem rather fruitless in the end (overthrow the Queen, face the past, be a better person, etc). We only even know she’s “chosen” because of an ominous, black-enveloped birthday card that’s barely addressed. Rules aren’t outlined, intentionally blurring Lobdell’s ability to work thematic elements that seem fit at any given time. This means one entire day filled with Tree doing the “right thing” – projecting hollow enthusiasm (a time-loop cliche) – on-the-spot rationalizations and a finale motive reveal that’s Regina-George-eye-roll worthy.
By way of horror, kills are…repetitive. For most death sequences, Mr. Babyface killer (school mascot is a baby?) appears from the shadows and raises his weapon before plunging it right below the camera – a POV cheat to avoid on-screen kills. You’ve got a broken bong slice, kitchen knife stab, fountain drowning, bell tower hanging, baseball bat whack – all bloodless, like a “Skip” button to Carter’s bed. Gushy off-camera blood sprays won’t mean squat to excitable horror diehards, as Happy Death Day becomes a Hallmark slasher that even fumbles family sentiments. A colorless horror purgatory despite each scene feeling like a dive into White-Chick Urban Dictionary.
For a movie that repeats the same actions for 90 minutes, there’s frustratingly little worth remembering in Happy Death Day. Jessica Rothe and Rachel Matthews may earn handful of chuckles, but nothing beyond sorority thirst and college-age shenanigans. Tree is too thinly outlined for us to care about her necessary facing of demons, doubly so once finale plotting charts the end. People should be arrested, scarred or worse, but this is market-power horror so none of that matters. Tree hopes you’ll forget how each day removes itself farther from a narrative lineage, but you won’t. Especially when gruesome gore effects can’t even be used to save the day (over, and over, and over again).
Happy Death Day is a generic PG-13 horror purgatory that's lived on repeat until even weaker motivations take us farther out of any semblance of storytelling thrills.