Happy Death Day
Directed by Christopher Landon
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard
Rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity
1 hr. 36 min.

I resisted seeing this film with every fiber of my being. Déjà vu as a device in a movie, again? And so soon? It was only in March that I reviewed a film with a similar theme: Ry Russo Young’s Before I Fall. Did I really want to shiver in the frigid environs of the Cineplex to endure Happy Death Day? No. I didn’t want to. But I went ahead and saw it anyway, and got the biggest kick out of this very witty take on horror and its use of the template of redemption by reoccurrence.

Sorority sister Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up in a strange dorm room at Bayfield University, greeted by a soft-hearted fellow named Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). Judging from her raging hangover, she assumes she’s slept with him and beats feet for a hasty walk of shame. Every step of that first day is a comic, cringe-worthy mishap, right up to her hideous slashing death at the hands of someone in black, wearing the mask of a fat baby. And did we mention it’s her birthday?

Rothe (La La Land), who looks like Britney Spears by way of Eliza Dushku, is, at turns, witty, callous, perplexed and, yes, horrified. She takes full advantage of Tree’s presence in every scene. Comic-chiller director Christopher Landon (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) clearly had fun collaborating with horror writer Scott Lobdell. It’s even in the genes: He’s the son of the late Michael Landon, whose film career started in the camp classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf.

The two have added twists and turns to the reliving of each day. Tree’s demise is executed in a new and more unexpected way, each time. She keeps a list of the suspects who could be after her. But as each day repeats, she gets physically weaker. It’s déjà vu, but with original challenges for the character.

Tree is gorgeous, but not a nice person, so suspects range from an ex-date to sorority sisters to a roommate to a faculty member. Any of these folks could be donning that mask at the end of end day, and ending her life. By the way, that is some mask. It adds to the subversive humor. It’s as if Landon used the face of the banjo player in Deliverance as a model for the visage of this overfed infant, in constant hot pursuit of poor Tree.

Redemption is at work, of course, and we see Tree flower as she gets closer and closer to solving what has become not just a comic-horror tale, but a damn fine mystery. Who wants to ax Tree, and how does she stay standing, on her birthday?

For a thriller of any kind, it’s an easy watch, a delightful watch, leavened with more wit than blood (but there’s plenty of that). The word of mouth, of course, has been sensational — Happy Death Day opened at the top of the box office, pushing the big-budgeted sequel Blade Runner 2049 out of the No. 1 spot, with a $26.5 million take. That’s the kind of déjà vu everybody likes.

If you’re old enough, you cannot see this movie without initially thinking of Groundhog Day, the granddaddy of films that trap characters into repeating the same 24 hours. There’s clever reference to it in Happy Death Day, which makes the film even more humorous, its writing and acting that much sharper, and the box office even more well-deserved. I guess many did as I did: went against their instincts, and found Happy Death Day a happy October surprise.