Like “Groundhog Day” with a terrifying twist, it’s the story of Tree Gelbman (“La La Land‘s” Jessica Rothe). She’s a sharp-tongued Bayfield University mean girl who begins her birthday, Monday October 18, waking up in the dorm room of a young guy named Carter (Israel Broussard). Hungover from the night before she’s late for class and has lunch with her sorority sisters before being stabbed to death by a stranger wearing a creepy Bayfield Babies mascot mask.
Stuck in the twilight zone, she’s forced to relive the day of her murder again and again. “Maybe I’m like a cat with nine lives,” she worries, “and I’m running out.” The only way to save her life is to search for clues and solve her own murder. Trouble is, the suspects could be anyone. “It could be the tiny girl at TJ Max I got fired,” she says, “or the Uber driver I spit on last week.” She is doomed to keep dying until she figures out who her killer is.
Blumhouse, “Happy Death Day’s” production company, are known for their low-budget high concept scares. They scored earlier this year with the brilliant “Get Out” and changed b-movie horror with their “Paranormal Activity” movies. Their latest thriller isn’t likely to be remembered as anything other than a politically incorrect thriller with a strong cast whose engaging performances keep the “today is the first day of the rest of your life… and death” premise interesting.
As snarky sorority sister Danielle newcomer Rachel Matthews is a scene-stealer elevates condescension to an art form and Broussard is goofily charming but it is Rothe’s movie. A combo of great comic timing, charisma and running mascara she does all the movie’s heavy lifting. Whether she’s in full-blown panic mode or on the inevitable journey of self discovery that comes with living your life on a loop—think Jennifer Garner’s “13 Going on 30” redemption—or cracking wise, she’s the star of the show.
“Happy Death Day” morphs from time loop murder mystery to spiritual rebirth story to romance to revenge all in a tight 90 minutes. The rewound days are varied enough to keep things interesting, with each new morning more frantic than the last. The PG13 rating means it’s not a thrill-a-minute but in addition to the fun performances it also has a few vulgar laughs, a few shocks and enough twists to be worth the price of the popcorn.