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There's literally a joke at the very end of Christopher Landon's campy Happy Death Day -- and this is not a spoiler, I promise -- where Tree (Jessica Rothe), the gorgeous sorority sister who has been reliving the same day time and time again, admits that she's unfamiliar with the film Groundhog Day. When pressed on the topic, Tree goes so far as to say she's not sure who Bill Murray is, either.
That exchange, in a nutshell, captures exactly who Happy Death Day is targeting: Younger audiences who haven't yet witnessed every horror trick in this film's bag, and who don't immediately recognize the horror/comedy for what it wants to be -- a not-that-clever ripoff of Murray's masterpiece, with an obvious but fun slasher-film twist. Which is fine. Some creative type had enough sense to pitch Blumhouse on the one-trick premise of "What if we did Groundhog Day, but as a college-campus slasher flick?" And they bit. But Happy Death Day is never anything more than that. So I left the screening admiring its competency as an old-school, final-girl-versus-mindless stalker homage, but wishing Landon and his cast could have expanded on the concept instead of squandering its potential.
It's Tree's (Jessica Rothe) birthday, and she begins it by waking up, hungover, in the dorm room of underclassman Carter (Israel Broussard). She's hungover. She's miserable. And she's about to realize that the universe -- for reasons that are never explained -- is going to make her relive this day, over and over, starting from this point. As the day progresses, Tree gets further along her personal timeline. She meets with the fellow -- and equally nasty -- members of her sorority house. She sneaks away to meet the married professor (Charles Aitken) with whom she is sleeping. And at night, Tree realizes she's being stalked by a masked killer. Every night. And when the killer succeeds in eliminating Tree -- in gruesome fashion -- she wakes up in Carter's bed, rebooting the murderous cycle.
Swap out Jessica Rothe's self-centered and spoiled sorority bitch with Bill Murray's egotistical and selfish weatherman, and you see how Happy Death Day follows Harold Ramis' 1993 classic Groundhog Day, to a tee. Tree wakes up with retained knowledge of everything that happened to her on all of the previous "birthdays," but no one else around her knows they are repeating the day. Tree even goes through several of the same existential crises that Murray faced in Groundhog Day... as when she starts to wear and eat whatever the hell she wants, knowing it won't have any consequence when she starts the day over.
Happy Death Day actually uses Tree's lather/rinse/repeat dilemma to humorous effect, making the movie much more of a comedy than it is a horror film (even the slasher scenes are harmless, with the violence and kills occurring off screen, and the tension rarely ratcheting up beyond, say, a 5 on a 10-scale dial). Which kind of sucks, because by not fully embracing its horror elements, Happy Death Day wastes a memorable killer in its Baby Face stalker. The person hunting Tree wears black jeans and a hoodie, and sports this disturbingly cheerful, cherub-faced baby mask, with round, pinchable cheeks, bright blue and unblinking eyes, and one giant tooth that doesn't quite fit in the ghoul's mouth. It's a disturbing sight to see this oversized infant trying to plunge a dagger into Tree's chest, but director Christopher Landon usually opts for a suspense-deflating laugh instead of going to the jugular with his unique predator.
When Happy Death Day works, it's usually thanks to Jessica Rothe, who's such a charismatic, comically unlikeable but ultimately worthy Scream Queen, we simply enjoy watching her maneuver through the unusual shitstorm that her birthday has brought. Happy Death Day needs Tree to be mean, terrified, funny, over-confident, flirtatious, frustrated, agile and cunning, and Rothe pulls pretty much all of them off in convincing fashion. The movie ultimately lets her down with a deeply unsatisfying ending, but she shines throughout. Make a mental note, as I expect Rothe just stenciled her name alongside Amy Adams, Hilary Swank, Renee Zellweger and Charlize Theron as big-time screen actresses who got an early break in a forgettable horror movie, but went on to bigger and better things.