If you’re a fan of classic old-school slasher movies, the kind that “Scream” skewered so deftly (even as it made itself into an ideal example of one — that was part of the skewering), you know how interchangeable they are: the masked killers who keep popping up in the most arbitrary possible ways, the fresh and sexy generic youth actors who get carved into mincemeat, the whole thrusting-kitchen-knife atmosphere of “Psycho”-at-the-mall exploitation. So there’s a very minor sort of literal ingenuity to the premise of “Happy Death Day,” a collegiate slasher movie that funnels all the usual tropes and clichés — yes, even the holiday title — into a knowing variation on “Groundhog Day”: the same nightmare scenario played out over and over again, with variations. In a genre as debased as this one, that almost counts as inspiration.
On the campus of Bayview University, a sorority party girl named Tree (Jessica Rothe) gets woken up on her birthday by the clang of the bell tower, only to learn that she’s in a dude’s dorm room. Did she sleep with Carter (Israel Broussard), the curly-haired cutie whose name she can’t recall?
She’s too hungover to even bother asking. And little does she realize that everything that now happens to her is going to be a repeated clockwork motif: the Asian hipster who bursts into the room nattering about her “fine vagine,” the global-warming activist who tries to collect her signature, the jock she had a date with who stops to ask why she never texted him, the office encounter with the a—hole-Brit professor she’s sleeping with, the sorority roommate who offers her a birthday cupcake, the electric blackout that lasts for three seconds, the stroll to the frat house where she’s about to have a surprise party, and — of course! — her encounter with the film’s deranged killer, who wears a hoodie and a plastic mask of the school mascot, which looks like the Big Boy icon turned into a grinning, gaping-eyed, fat-cheeked, one-toothed baby.
Tree tries to fight him off, but to no avail. He slashes away and kills her. And it’s at that moment that she wakes up…on the very same day…all over again. Reset!
It’s her fate to live the day once more, hopefully with a better ending. But for most of “Happy Death Day,” it doesn’t work out that way. Tree keeps trying to change the scenario — make a different choice, take a different path — but wherever she lands (a hospital, a road where her car gets stopped by a police officer), the killer has a way of showing up right then and there to finish her off. Which means that she’s doomed — or privileged — to live that day again. Until she seizes the day and alters her destiny. This make Tree, in her way, a singular character in the history of slasher cinema: She’s the sleeping-around libertine who gets bumped off, and the virtuous heroine whose goodness protects her, all at the same time.
“Groundhog Day,” a fun if somewhat overvalued movie, was spun out of a celebration of its own cleverness. “Happy Death Day” is “Groundhog Day” dipped in blood, and if the movie isn’t all that clever, it’s just clever enough to get by. It’s the latest horror film from Blumhouse Productions, the company that gave us the magnificent “Get Out,” as well as “Split,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “The Purge,” and this one, like those last three, should find an audience that wants a few teasing “ideas” mixed in with its visceral jolts. I wish I could say that “Happy Death Day” was scary, but its murderous climaxes arrive with such mechanical precision that there isn’t much suspense to them. Yet the movie is a horror-thriller time maze that’s just structurally varied enough to get lost in. It’s a slasher film with one victim elevated to a next-level video game.
Jessica Rothe, who plays Tree, is no blank horror princess. She has a very expressive face (she looks like a high-maintenance Sara Bareilles), and she’s a small tornado of emotion who keeps the action spinning. “Happy Death Day” presents an up-to-the-minute version of college mean-girl rivalry. The killer could be anyone in the movie, and in the one sequence with a “Scream”-like tinge of meta japery, Tree makes a list of all the potential culprits and spies on them (which allows her to learn, among other things, that her text date is gay). The film has, of course, more red herrings than you can count, which means that when you finally think the killer is unmasked, he probably isn’t; it also has about four endings. Yet somehow that all seems unusually appropriate, since the entire movie is a rerun with variations. “Happy Death Day” falls short of mad inspiration, but it isn’t just thrown together — it’s built. And that should please its intended audience. The slasher-meets-“Groundhog Day” concept is so flagrantly derivative it seems new, and more than that it feels right, since to watch almost any slasher film is to be trapped in a loop of mayhem. The nightmare doesn’t end; it just repeats.