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Happy Death Day Movie Review

I’m not sure why all of a sudden, people are rushing to do genre swaps on the premise of Groundhog Day – a mean schmuck gets stuck in a time loop, reliving the same day until they learn the lesson needed to break the cycle – but if they’re all as fun as they’ve been so far, I won’t complain. Groundhog Day as a sci-fi action movie? Edge of Tomorrow. Groundhog Day as a martial arts movie? Rope-A-Dope and Rope-A-Dope 2. Now, we have Groundhog Day as a slasher movie, Happy Death Day, and the result is a pretty solid horror movie, albeit one a few steps short of greatness.
The movie follows college student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, a college sorority girl celebrating her birthday as she does every day on campus, by being dismissive and condescending to her classmates, catty even to her closest friends, and generally acting like the blonde that blonde that usually gets axed first in every horror movie. So it’s no small surprise when her birthday gets cut short when she falls victim to a masked assailant – the surprise comes when she wakes again the same morning, seemingly stuck in a time loop until she can essentially solve her own murder before it happens again, and again, and again.
If you’ve ever seen any of the movies that use this premise, most of the trappings of Happy Death Day’s story should be pretty apparent – we watch tree try and fail repeatedly to break the cycle, growing, learning and maturing a little bit more with each gruesome death. The clever twist here is the genre swap, centering the time loop on the typical first victim in each slasher movie, the person whom we typically watch get brutalized with some measure of glee, and working towards making us cheer for them to finally come out of this alive. It’s a killer premise, one helped by a script that is genre-savvy enough to make a few left turns when you least expect it, tinged with a dose of dark humor, and it moves fast enough it never drags.
It helps that Happy Death Day is carried by a brilliant performance from Jessica Rothe, who manages to deliver what will very likely be a star-making role for her. Time loop movies sink or swim based on how the lead actor/actress carries the movie more or less on their shoulders, and Rothe gamely steps up to add enough personality and screen presence to make Happy Death Day more memorable than just it’s set up. Watching her make the transformation from the first victim to the final girl is an entertaining one, and a lot of that has to do with Rothe herself selling the journey every bloody step of the way.
Most of the rest of the cast is fine – the only one really worth noting is Israel Broussard as the genre-savvy nerd Rothe taps for survival advice and the movie taps for exposition when needed. It is worth noting that the movie’s masked slasher has a really great design – too many slasher movies over think the look of their slasher, and there is a nice memorable middle ground in Happy Death Day’s killer, just a hoodie and a baby mask.
That’s not to say there aren’t some flaws – the biggest being that the movie is forced to pull it’s punches somewhat due to the PG-13 rating. Not every horror movie has to be a blood-drenched gorefest, but Happy Death Day loses a little something by having to cut away from each of the creatively staged deaths before they climax. Another issue is that it sometimes borders on being too self-aware, though thankfully never to the extent as the string of post-modern slashers that followed Scream. It bends, but never breaks, though it comes close at times.
A killer premise, a twisted sense of humor, and a scream queen in the making are likely enough to make Happy Death Day this Halloween’s go-to horror movie in theaters, at least for those of you who’ve seen It three or four times by now. It’s not perfect, but in an October where the rest of the genre offerings are reboots or sequels to long dormant franchises, a little originality goes a long way, even if the initial spark had to be borrowed from Harold Ramis and Bill Murray.

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