“Happy Death Day,” the story of a woman caught in an endless loop of her own death, uses familiar elements from the horror genre — and the classic movie “Groundhog Day” — to deliver its scares with wit and a wink.
It starts with Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a sorority sister in desperate need of sensitivity training, waking up in a strange college dorm room. Her meeting with the dorm's occupant, the sweet and naive Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), is the start of a string of humiliating moments magnified by it being Tree's birthday. Her suffering appears to come to an end when she’s attacked and killed by a man in a baby-face mask dressed in black.
Tree wakes the next morning — or, rather, the same morning — with a major sense of déjà vu and, ultimately, another murderous end to her day.
After three or four days of dying, Tree realizes that until she figures out her killer’s identity, her death day will repeat. What’s more, each time Tree awakens, she's a bit weaker.
One big problem is that Tree’s suspect list is massively long thanks to her selfish life. And like the beautiful blonds in so many other horror films, she always seems to be wearing the wrong shoes to run away from her killer.
That’s just one of the horror-film tropes Scott Lobdell's script features and then, in the spirit of “Get Out,” manipulates. The twist is that Tree is both victim and savior.
“Happy Death Day” has a body count to rival most horror movies. Except almost all the deaths are of the same person. This is where “Happy Death Day” most departs from tried-and-true horror in which the fun is guessing who and in what order those trapped in an old mansion, campground or sorority house will be killed. The focus here goes from a morbid game of chance to a smart whodunit.
Each time Tree relives her death day, it's obvious that somehow the killer is going to find her. But Lobdell's script is so smartly written that each ending comes as a surprise. Without giving anything away, know that Lobdell doesn’t cheat with the plot and leaves no story strand dangling.
A lot of the credit for making “Happy Death Day” worth seeing is the performance by Rothe (“Mary + Jane”). She is believable as the snotty sorority sister, the scared and confused murder victim, and the strong woman who not only finds clues about her killer with each death but learns a lot about herself. It's a demanding task because Rothe is in every scene.
The film also has time for the kind of levity that rarely pops up in a serious horror film. When someone points out to Tree that living the same day over and over sounds a lot like the plot of “Groundhog Day,” she says she's never heard of the film or its star Bill Murray.
Director Christopher Landon (“Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) has created a film that has scary moments but is not burdened by the endless slaughter that so many horror filmmakers use. The filmmaker and writer also never give into the kind of gratuitous sex that is always a signal in a standard horror film that someone — or a couple — is about to die.
If all you want out of a horror film is blood and guts, “Happy Death Day” isn't the right movie for you. But if you’re looking to enjoy some scares while trying to figure out a clever mystery, don’t miss “Happy Death Day.”
Rick Bentley is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘Happy Death Day’
Rated: PG-13, for violence, sexual content, language, partial nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: In general release