Live. Die. Repeat.
What if you could relive the worst birthday of your life again and again? Wait, don’t answer yet. It ends with you being brutally killed, in one way or another. Sold? This Friday the 13th brings “Happy Death Day” — a slasher film-meets-”Groundhog Day”meets a college rom-com.
It’s an odd mix, yet, oddly, a mostly winning one.
That’s not entirely surprising considering it comes from production company Blumhouse, which earlier this year found itself with a major hit in another genre-bending horror flick, the highly entertaining “Get Out.” While “Happy Death Day” doesn’t have anything remotely as culturally interesting as writer-director Jordan Peele’s, um, unusual examination of racial issues in “Get Out” and isn’t nearly as bold, it does pack an hour and a half of reasonably strong entertainment.
We meet sorority chick Tree (Jessica Rothe), a student at fictional Bayfield University in Louisiana, as she awakens in a strange bed.
“Am I in a dorm room?” she asks, clearly out of sorts.
“Um, yeah,” says a young man in the room, whose name, unknown to her, is Carter (Israel Broussard of “The Bling Ring”), and with whom she apparently spent the night.
She ignores a call from her dad, apparently calling to wish her a happy birthday, asks Carter for some Tylenol to attack her binge drinking-related headache, grabs her clothes and heads on her way, telling the out-of-his-league Carter he is not to speak of their night together.
She returns to her sorority house, where she first encounters witchy alpha female Danielle (newcomer Rachel Matthews) and then her roommate, the much nicer if still a-bit-judgmental Lori (Ruby Modine of “Shameless”). Lori, having snooped Tree’s driver’s license, presents her with a cupcake and a single candle, which Tree — who’s rather witchy herself — rejects on her way out as she realizes she’s late for class.
“Sorry, too many carbs,” Tree snottily tells Lori. “Toodles.”
We soon learn Tree is having an affair with a married doctor, Gregory (Charles Aitken of “The Knick”), who teaches one of her classes.
(Yep, she’s a real peach, and we expect she’ll learn a valuable lesson about being a better person throughout the course of the movie.)
That night, on the way to a party, she encounters an individual wearing the creepy onetoothed baby mask of the school mascot, who murders her. (Seriously, Bayfield University, you have the weirdest mascot in the history of college athletics.)
That’s not the end of Tree, of course, who immediately again awakens in Carter’s bed, ignores a call from her dad and asks for the painkiller, now with a better idea of where it is than Carter has. She’s weirded out by most of this take-two of her birthday, but still genuinely freaks out when she gets back to the sorority house and realizes she’s late for class. This type of inconsistency is one of the few irritations of the solid script by comic book writer Scott Lobdell.
Without giving away all the details, we get to day three, and to Tree’s (and Lobdell’s) credit, she is appropriately panicked and sets about barricading herself in her bedroom and riding out this day in safety. Of course, that doesn’t work, and she turns to Carter for help, and, maybe because he’s a good guy — or because he finds her really attractive — he’s more than willing to believe her story and offer up a plan.
While that plan involves living and dying until Tree figures out who the killer is and stops that maniac, Lobdell wisely introduces a time element into the fix. Even if, like other story elements, it’s silly, it helps in terms of drama.
But let’s be clear: Despite the life-and-death stakes, and the constant murdering, “Happy Death Day” isn’t all that dramatic or even scary. It’s fun-scary, which is, you know, fun. Give credit to director Christopher Landon (“Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) for finding a winning tone; “Happy Death Day” never quite becomes campy, so you still are invested in the survival of our heroine, who, yes, may be learning to be a better Tree.
Having someone kill you again and again would have that effect, you’d think.
Even with decent writing and direction, “Happy Death Day” doesn’t work without someone talented as Tree, and Rothe — who has a number of lower-profile credits but who also appeared in “La La Land” — does a really nice job with the role. Tree is likeable and unlikeable at different times in a believable way. And thanks to the chemistry she shares with Broussard, you may be surprised how much you want them to find a way out of this and for the two of them to get together.
In recent years, there has been a bit of a glut of time-loop movies borrowing from 1993’s “Groundhog Day,” which saw Bill Murray’s character repeating the same day. A similar idea was employed in this year’s teen drama “Before I Fall,” 2014 teen comedy “Premature” and extremely effectively in the excellent sci-fi drama “Edge of Tomorrow” the same year. While it’s now bordering on a tired twist, it still offers enough juice to help “Happy Death Day” stand out from the horror crowd.
Worst birthday ever? No, not really.
‘Happy Death Day’
In theaters: Oct. 13. Rated: PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity. Runtime: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Stars (of four): 2.5.
Tree, portrayed by Jessica Rothe, is dying — again and again — on her birthday in “Happy Death Day.”