When Groundhog Day was released in 1993, it was a genuinely fresh comic fantasy which still had a classical feel. Much – including a few lawsuits – was made of the fact that there were earlier books, TV episodes and films which had similar (but not identical) premises, though it wasn’t just the cool idea that made the film work. What most of the other caught-in-a-timeloop stories lacked was the redemptive arc – the sense that the obnoxious grouch played by Bill Murray could only escape by getting his one eternal day right. Among the first films to be influenced by computer gameplay, it’s also a near-perfect fable on a par with the similar redemption-of-a-git A Christmas Carol or the time-scrambling of It’s a Wonderful Life. Since 1993, Groundhog Day has been a touchstone for this sort of story – I’ve lost count of the number of TV shows that have done a ‘Groundhog Day episode’. Which means that as a classic modern text, it’s fair game for a Blumhouse quickie as scurrilous and inventive as Happy Death Day … which puts obnoxious, damaged sorority girl Theresa ‘Tree’ Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) in a time loop whereby she repeatedly lives through a day which begins with her waking up hungover on her birthday in the bed of frat guy Carter (Israel Broussard) and ends with her being murdered by a slasher in a babyface mask.
With multiple go-rounds, Tree gets to rule out the many suspects she has given motives for murder – making up the list gives even her pause to question her lifestyle choices – and meet her end in a variety of manners, including stabbing, poisoning, burning, drowning, bludgeoning, hanging, etc. Adding a bit of a ticking clock, she senses that each of her demises means that she comes back weaker … while there are also sub-plots and red herrings to be explored as suspicion moves out of her immediate circle of frenemies towards a standard serial killer Joseph Tombs (Rob Mello) who is under arrest in the hospital where Tree heads for a scene with her unethical lech professor (Charles Aitken) that is either a quickie, a breakup or an attempt to get advice on temporal physics. Screenwriter Scott Lobdell, best known for his comics work (on a slew of X-Men titles, especially), crafts the character stuff expertly, and Rothe – who was in La La Land and did femeale lead duties in the neat little werewolf film Wolves – pulls off the Murray-esque knack of being horrid and likeable at the same time (one of the things that most appals Carter about Tree is that she’s never heard of Bill Murray or seen Groundhog Day), though a strain of pathos (she’s only a nasty bitch-slut because her mother died) is a little too by-the-numbers even for a streamlined genre film like this. As in most time paradox films, there have to be scenes where people talk through what’s going on – and, as in Groundhog Day, these have a desperate edge as Tree realises the folks she convinces of her plight or tries to make up with – including her Dad (Jason Bayle) and her cupcake-making putupon roomie (Ruby Modine) – won’t recall the conversation the next time round.
The campus stalker stuff is deliberately generic, though the big singletoothed baby mask is creepy, but well-staged by director Christopher Landon, upping his game after a Paranormal Activity spinoff and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. We do get every imaginable bad outcome for the heroine, including the inevitable moment where she is on the point of final victory but only after her new love interest has been murdered … and has to take steps to get herself killed so she can have yet another run-through of the day. The reprises of tiny incidents and encounters with variations are nicely intricate and amusing – the payoff for the equivalent of the Ned Ryerson character, a perhaps stalkery rejected football player type, is sweet and outrageous … and the multiple appearances of the single-candle cupcake and a brief power failure are ingeniously worked into the overall story. Recommended.