Calling Happy Death Day a horror movie is a bit of a stretch. It has its fair share of jump scares, screams, and murder, but when the entire audience erupts in laughter at least five times in the first thirty minutes, it’s clear that this was misbranding.
The film centers around Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a college student who wakes up on the day of her birthday in a strange dorm room belonging to Carter (Israel Broussard), a boy whose name she can’t recall. With no memory of the previous night, she stumbles along through her day: an ignored call from her father, a surprise cupcake from her roommate, an affair with a teacher. It’s not until she starts walking to a party at night that the film seems to instantly flip a switch to murder time. Eerie music starts playing, masked man appears out of nowhere, high-pitched screams screech — and Tree wakes up back in the same dorm room again. And again. And again. And she doesn’t escape these encounters unscathed: her body slowly reveals the traumas from previous deaths, whether it’s in the form of scarred tissue or concussions. As the kill-and-wake-up cycle continues, she decides she must uncover her masked killer, stop her own murder, and live to see tomorrow.
Although the movie features creepy carousel-style music, fast-paced chasing sequences and plenty of other tropes, Happy Death Day is at its best when it forgets that it’s trying to be terrifying. In its finest moments, it even uses horror clichés to build the comedy. Frightful moments of silence turn out to be fake scares. A masked man appears, only for Tree to punch an innocent person. The humor isn’t always original or fancy (the script even includes a fart joke), but its amusing twists provide more than enough entertainment.
Despite never really becoming a likable person, Tree is not your typical frustration-inducing horror character. She never naively wanders into the dark, looking around for the killer, muttering some variation of the dumb question: “Who’s there?” I counted her carrying weapons at least four different times: a pocket knife, a cop’s gun, an old hammer, and a fire ax. She actively uses her deaths to cross names off of suspect lists, she actually considers getting herself arrested to escape the killer, and she truly won me over when she barricades herself in her room by nailing windows and doors shut. All of these attempts end up being useless, but they’re intelligent and well-thought-out nonetheless. Rothe’s performance is also particularly striking. Tree is far from a blank character, waking up sometimes panicked, sometimes pissed off, and sometimes downright horrified. She goes through all sorts of phases, and Rothe takes full advantage of this. Her face is expressive, and her delivery is remarkably sharp. Tree might not be the most well-named character, it’s hard to resist secretly cheering for her as she tries over and over again to survive.
Happy Death Day does have its flaws, and it’s certainly guilty of a few plot holes. It never really gets around to answering what brought the time loop about, or how it functions, or just exactly how many lives Tree does have. Tree getting physically weaker and passing out due to previous injuries from other deaths is also quite inconsistent, being at play solely when it’s convenient for the plot. The time loop shenanigans aren’t perfectly written, but, quite frankly, the film’s strong comedic tone didn’t make me think too hard about the physics behind it. Happy Death Day is meant to be crazy, unexplained, stupid fun—and it’s great at it.
So is this the best pick for a Halloween movie? If you’re expecting to leave theatres and not be able to sleep with your lights off, then I’d probably say not. The PG-13 rating allows plenty of ridiculously bloodless murder sequences: I was dying of laughter after a man got stabbed over five times and still somehow had a spotless shirt. Aside from the jump scares, the killer isn’t that terrifying, and their baby mask is more silly than scary. The movie simply doesn’t put up much of a fight against It (2017) when it comes to fear. But for anyone craving a movie that smashes slasher film with witty humor, then Happy Death Day is the way to have your cake and eat it too.