What if you had to relive the same day over and over again? How does one cope with it? What is the cause? How is it to break the cycle? This paradoxical scenario (at least in the movie world) is called a “time loop” or more commonly referred to as the “Groundhog Day” effect, which is a reference to the 1993 film of the same name. Not to be confused with time traveling, these films utilizes the time loop scenario (usually) as a plot device; seeing a character reliving the same day (or timeline sequences) over and over in a perpetual / endless loop. This is usually followed by this character attempting to break the “loop” by attempting to get something right (either something tangible or non-tangible motives). Such films that have used this time loop plot device includes the aftermentioned 1993 film (i.e. Groundhog Day) as well Before I Fall, Edge of Tomorrow, ARG, Run Lola Run, and Source Code. Additionally, this “Groundhog Day” effect is not just reserved for feature films as multiple television shows and cartoon series have made usage of this scenario in various episodes. Now, Universal Pictures, Blumhouse Productions, and director Christopher B. Landon present the newest iteration of this time loop premise with the film Happy Death Day. Does this movie stand-out in the “Groundhog Day” movie crowd or does it feel stagnant with its overused looped concept?
College Student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up (hungover) on her birthday in Carter Davis’s (Israel Broussard) dorm room with pounding headache and a fuzzy memory of what happened the night before. Slinking back to her sorority, Tree is confronted by her vicious sister, Danielle Bouseman (Rachel Matthews), and is semi-reassured by her roommate, Lori Spengler (Ruby Modine), who is frustrated over Tree’s constant causal cruelty demeanor. Tree then proceeds through the day, include dealing with a first crush stalker, a professor she’s sleeping with, and pressure from her estranged father, who’s meeting her for a birthday dinner. However, Tree brushes through these obstacles, focusing on herself and dishing out her snobbish and / or self-centered remarks to every situation. Unfortunately, while she’s on her way to party that night, Tree finds herself murdered by an unknown individual (wearing a mask of the school’s mascot…a baby), only to immediately wake again in Carter’s room at the beginning of the day with the cycle continuing in an endless loop. Confused and frightened, Tree sets out to solve her time loop, learning the day’s routine (going through a list of suspects and revaluating her daily events) and trying to figure out and trying to figure out her murderer’s identity.
As stated above, the usage of this paradoxical time loop has been utilized many times over in various films and TV program episodes. Of course, 1993’s Groundhog Day is the most famous of them all and has indeed become a somewhat iconic in both motion pictures and of in the time loop films. Perhaps my favorite one of these types of movies has to be 2014’s sci-fi-action drama Edge of Tomorrow, which starred Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, and the late Bill Paxton. It used the “Groundhog Day” effect scenario within the feature, but was able to integrate it with a science fiction narrative. Plus, Cruise and Blunt were excellent in their respective roles as Major William “Bill” Cage and Sergeant Rita Vrataski (“Angel of Verdun”). As I said, there’s plenty of time loop scenarios on both the big and small screen, but either Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow are the prime example of this situation.
This, of course, leads into my review of Happy Death Day, which is the newest iteration of the “time loop” usage as a narrative plot device for a feature film. I remember seeing the trailer for this movie several times and (to be honest) I didn’t quite think much of this movie. I mean the trailer did present the whole “groundhog” day scenario, but almost looked like horror / slasher flick and (as many of the readers know) I’m not usually a fan of horror movies. However, as I try to broaden my horizons as a movie reviewer, I decided to see this movie and give the movie a chance. So, what did I think of it? While the film is very formulaic and does get shortchanged in some areas, Happy Death Day is a somewhat unique feature that offers up a familiar setup in a silly way. In short, its good or bad…. it’s just somewhere in between.
Happy Death Day is directed Christopher Landon, whose previous works includes working as screenplay for several of the Paranormal Activity movies (Paranormal Activity 2,3,4, and The Marked Ones) as well as directing Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Given his background, one would expect Landon to make Happy Death Day to be straight-up horror flick. In actuality, however, the film has more lighthearted tone than what was originally expected by many, including myself. That’s because the Langdon makes Happy Death Day self-aware of its situation (the whole “Groundhog Day” scenario), giving the feature more comedic beats that are scattered throughout the film. Perhaps, since the whole “time loop” angle has been worked over many times, Langdon and the film’s screenplay writer Scott Lobdell want to create a film that has a keener sense of itself and its situation, blending Happy Death Day with the “time loop” drama and horror slasher flicks. There are a few moments where both genres do shine in their respective categories, with a macabre humor montage scene of Tree investigating several suspects of that’s set to Demi Lovato’s song “Confident” as well as some frightening moments with her masked killer (a full-growing adult in a baby mask…. definitely creepy looking). Also, Langdon and Lobdell present the film’s narrative to be set in a stereotypical college campus; completely with a lot of the commonplace things one would expect in a cinematic college environment, including a bossy sorority queen, frat college parties, a student sleeping with a teacher / professor, and someone college drama here and there. Like I said, it’s all conventional stuff that I expected to see, but it certainly does work with Happy Death Day’s narrative plot structure. In the short, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously (at times) as have some fun within its silly premise.
However, there are several problems that keep Happy Death Day from being memorable within this very specific genre / plot point device mechanic. Perhaps the main problem with the feature is that it doesn’t bring anything new to the “Groundhog Day” scenario. Yes, the movie is presented with an interesting twist of a snobbish college sorority girl being the protagonist character that gets caught within this time loop event, but the narrative structure itself is all too familiar and follows the same beats from past entries (i.e. Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, etc.). This, of course, means the Happy Death Day is given a sense of déjà vu (yes, a pun within a movie about time loop movie) in being predictable, with very little to distinguish itself from other similar films out there. This also means that the moral personal plights that Tree must confronted are generic and the ending twist in the third act comes as no surprise as it’s clear that where it’s going to end up and becomes more ridiculously as it goes along. Additionally, since the movie is essentially a blend of two movie genres (time loops movies and slasher flicks), it doesn’t help that it was given a PG-13 rating, which dilutes the slasher aspect of the feature. I really didn’t expect the movie super bloody and gore, but still I was expecting a bit more, especially since this deals with the character of Tree being killed every single day within this time loop scenario. These shortcomings aren’t enough to completely derail the feature, but it’s still nothing grand or memorable and becomes more oddly silly.
The cast in Happy Death Day is mostly low-key and / or unknown names from its selection actors and actresses, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, leading the charge is actress Jessica Rothe as the film’s main character of Tree Gelbman. Known for her roles in La La Land, The Tribe, and Mary + Jane, Rothe indeed gives the best performance of the movie, carrying the weight of the feature on her shoulders by displaying the various range of emotions (mean, snobbish, scared, sincere, etc.) in her portrayal of Tree. Though her character arc isn’t the most satisfying (or original), but Rothe still makes the most of the role, giving what the movie needs and does turn a solid performance of her career. Plus, and this might be just time, I think that Rothe looks like a younger version of Blake Lively (I thought it was when I first saw the trailer). Behind her, in terms of best performance, has to be Israel Broussard as Carter Davis, a fellow college student who is the first thing Tree sees when her day gets rest. Broussard, known for his roles in Flipped, The Bling Ring, and Good Kids, does a good job in easily selling Carter as the sweet and endearing character archetype that helps Tree (sometimes) on her mission to break her loop and to figure out who her killer is. However, the love story between Tree and Carter, is undeveloped and a bit of teen melodrama cliché of sorts. That being said, at least that both Rothe and Broussard have good chemistry with each other.
The rest of the characters are, more or less, delegated to being supportive roles of the feature. This includes Ruby Modine (Shameless and Central Park) as Tree’s concerned roommate Lori Spengler, Rachel Matthew (in her acting debut on the screen) as Tree’s sassy / vicious sorority sister Danielle Bouseman, Charles Aitken (The Knick and Frontier) as Tree’s professor Dr. Gregory Bulter (who Tree is sleeping with), Jason Bayle (Trumbo and The Big Short) as Tree’s estranged father David Gelbman, and Caleb Spillyards (The Astronauts Wives Club and Anyone) as Tree’s first crush stalker Tim Bauer. As you can tell, all these characters are a part of Tree’s life and / or daily routine within this time loop event and most, if not all, do pretty good job in their designated roles.