‘Happy Death Day’ kills it with for­mula

In en­ter­tain­ing ‘Ground­hog Day’-in­spired hor­ror-com­edy ‘Happy Death Day,’ re­peat­edly mur­dered girl strug­gles to get be­yond edge of to­mor­row

The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH) - - FRONT PAGE - By En­ter­tain­ment Editor Mark Mes­zoros mmes­zoros@news-her­ald.com @MarkMes­zoros on Twit­ter

Fri­day the 13th brings “Happy Death Day” — a slasher film­meets-“Ground­hog Day”meets rom-com.

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 one-toothed 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

While (the timeloop con­cept is) now bor­der­ing on a tired twist, it still of­fers enough juice to help “Happy Death Day” stand out from the hor­ror crowd.

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 fun­scary, 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 scifi 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.

UNI­VER­SAL PIC­TURES

Tree, por­trayed by Jes­sica Rothe, is dy­ing — again and again — on her birth­day in “Happy Death Day.”

UNI­VER­SAL PIC­TURES

Jes­sica Rothe’s Tree en­lists the help of Is­rael Brous­sard’s Carter in “Happy Death Day.”

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