This horror-comedy from director Christopher Landon (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) has a few good laughs, but the best one is at its own expense. Toward the end of the film, a young movie buff (Israel Broussard) asks the sorority-girl heroine (Jessica Rothe) whether the time loop she's been stuck in doesn't remind her perhaps a bit of Groundhog Day. When she looks blank, he keeps going: "Bill Murray? Ghostbusters?" Still no bells ringing.
Viewers who've never heard of Groundhog Day (1993), in which Murray was forced to live the same day over and over until he got it right, will undoubtedly get a bigger kick out of Happy Death Day than those who know it well. Still, there's no shame in revamping a great premise with a genre twist, and Landon and writer Scott Lobdell do a passable job. Just be prepared for more hit-or-miss comedy than horror.
Our protagonist, Tree Gelbman, has probably never seen Heathers, either, but that doesn't stop her from acting like one. Much like Murray's grumpy Phil Connors, this preening queen bee wakes up with bitchface on her birthday and gets progressively less pleasant as the hours pass. By the end of the day, when a masked assailant knifes her to death, the question is not why but which of the many people she pissed off decided to off her.
Luckily for Tree (sort of), she wakes up on her birthday again. And again, and again. Each night, she tries in vain to evade the mystery slayer, and soon she's convinced that the only way to break the loop is to solve and preempt her own murder. If they're observant, audience members will reach that solution long before she does.
Despite a respectable number of plot twists, Happy Death Day is no Agatha Christie, and horror fans hoping for another Scream are unlikely to get many chills from its frequent, perfunctory kills. The scariest thing in it is the killer's mask, a mascot that looks like a malevolent, chipmunk-cheeked infant. (Is the school team known as the Devil-Spawn?)
As a cut-rate spiritual sequel to the aforementioned Heathers, however, Happy Death Day isn't bad. It boasts a handful of clever lines and sight gags, such as Tree tapping obliviously on her phone as a frat boy goes into death throes behind her. Rothe gives a winning comic performance, fully committing to Tree's supermodel strut and incredulous hauteur. This girl is shocked — shocked — that anyone would be insensitive enough to offer her a carb-heavy birthday treat, let alone threaten her life.
Unfortunately, the film redeems Tree through the revelation of a sappy backstory and a soapy tête-à-tête with her dad (Jason Bayle), whose birthday wishes she's been rebuffing in each iteration. While it's nice to see her learning to use her weird plight for good, nothing about that process is surprising; a couple of scenes mimic Groundhog Day almost too closely to count as homage.
If only this movie were as smart as its inspiration. But its plot is woven from college stereotypes: nasty sorority sisters, oafish frat bros, a McDreamy professor, flustered nerds who occasionally blossom into love interests. The genius of the Groundhog Day premise is that its hero discovers the unpredictability latent in the predictable: all the tiny acts of free will that could make the "same" day go very differently. Tree mainly just discovers that she's been reliving the plot tropes of better movies.