“Happy Death Day” qualifies as a movie that doesn’t quite fit a category. Its packaging and Halloween season release date put it in the horror genre, but it’s not a good fit. The film’s premise of a college student awakening to the same day every morning references, both literally and figuratively, Bill Murray’s classic Groundhog Day. Comic elements abound, but laced with the horror associated with a stalking slasher.
Although this unevenness creates some tension from time to time, it always seems to dilute the horrific. Even a mask-clad weirdo wielding a butcher knife starts to appear less than threatening the fifth or sixth time around.
The best element of “Happy Death Day” could be the setting itself. The action takes place in the dorm rooms and the campus of lovely Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana. The ivy-covered walls of the buildings, landscapes, and cluttered dorm rooms make for an attention-grabbing backdrop to both conversations and actions.
Most of the dramatic rests firmly on the capable shoulders of Jessica Rothe who had a part in La-La Land. She delivers an appropriately spacey ingénue in the character of Tree Gelbman, a young woman plagued by the death of her mother on the birthday they both shared.
Gelbman has forsaken most of her responsibilities in her grief, moving into the anger stage. She ignores her father’s phone calls, binge drinks to the point of oblivion, and has all the markings of a shallow, back-stabbing sorority mean girl.
Then she’s murdered on her way to a party, only to awaken the next morning to confront the whole terrible scene again.
As the repeated days mount, Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), a major player in her nightmare, helps her begin to sort out Gelbman’s bizarre state. It’s his dorm room where she wakes up every morning, hung over and confused.
When she confesses her plight to him, he suggests that she solve the murder and change her vindictive ways to alleviate the situation.
When Gelbman takes control of her dilemma, everything will change, including her bad attitude. She realizes she can shape the world in her terms, so she does. And for all the repetition, it’s a much better place, and finally, devoid of one stalking slasher.
Rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity.
Marilyn Robitaille has been writing film reviews since 1999.