Tree (Jessica Rothe) is having an unhappy birthday. She wakes up in the bed of a stranger named Carter (Israel Broussard). Carter’s roommate says something disrespectful. She gets hassled by an environmentalist. She’s being stalked by an ex. She lives in a sorority house run by a judgmental bully. She’s annoyed by her own roommate (Ruby Modine) and throws the special cupcake she made into the trash. She’s late for class, but she’s off the hook because she’s having an affair with the married professor. She shares a birthday with her late mother, and her estranged father nags her to remember that fact when all she wants to do is forget. As if all that weren’t enough, at the end of the day, she gets stabbed to death.
“Happy Death Day” is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material, and partial nudity. Its running time is 96 minutes.
Tree once again wakes up in Carter’s bed. The same roommate bursts in with the same inappropriate remark. She gets hassled by the same environmentalist and ex. She’s getting a weird sense of déjà vu, but since she got killed in the day she remembers, she’s not too beaten up about it. She avoids taking the path that brought her to the killer and makes it to her surprise birthday party. At the party, she gets stabbed to death. She wakes up in Carter’s bed again, with the obnoxious roommate coming in right on cue. She’s in a time loop, and it seems the only way to get out of it is to avoid being killed, and the way to do that is find out who keeps killing her.
Tree’s killer has to be someone who hates her, so the list of suspects is narrowed down to everyone she knows. There’s even one she doesn’t know: an escaped serial killer (Rob Mello). Her killer knows the nuances of her schedule and this guy wouldn’t, but he’s still a suspect because… you know, serial killer. She investigates the suspects’ whereabouts one by one, usually getting killed as soon as she eliminates that person as a suspect. The repeated murders take a toll on her well-being, so there is a sense of urgency, because each time she gets killed she’s increasingly unlikely to spryly wake up again.
The movie is a mess, and a lot of it has to do with the main character. Simply put, Tree is incredibly unlikeable. I get that the movie is doing a whole “redemption” arc where she’s mean at first and ends up learning a lesson, but even “nice” Tree has no respect for other people’s schedules and resolves a conflict by pouring “chocolate milk” (brown sludge that the movie insists is chocolate milk) onto an offender’s head. She makes for a lousy horror movie protagonist, as she keeps making the same major mistakes again and again. She gets killed a good half-dozen times and never thinks to rip the killer’s mask off. She waits until the last minute to perform life-saving actions that she could have done at any point in the day. Perhaps most infuriating is that there’s nothing to stop her from fleeing campus, yet she only tries escaping once and it’s a half-hearted attempt that she has no reason not to revisit with her subsequent chances.
My theory about “Happy Death Day” is that somebody wanted to make a movie about the least-frightening killer with the least-threatening weapon imaginable. The killer wears the mask of a cartoon baby, which I guess is supposed to tie into the birth/birthday theme, but those dots are never connected. I won’t get into the silly weapon because of potential spoilers. The mask and weapon were conceived first, and the movie written around them as an excuse to get away with the supposedly funny concept. This movie doesn’t even have the spine to go for an R rating. It’s filled with crude college humor and constant murder, but heaven forbid it’s off-limits to the kids in the PG-13 crowd. Give yourself a happy random day and go see something else.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.