In slasher films, the Sorority Girl is almost never the Final Girl. They're the one who always gets offed early (usually after The Black Guy), as they're too busy being cool, having sex with The Jock, scoffing at The Stoner, or shitting on The Homely Girl (who has a roughly 75% chance of transforming into The Final Girl). Only in Happy Death Day, the Sorority Girl (here played by Jessica Rothe) becomes the Only Girl, as Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) takes the classic Bill Murrary comedy Groundhog Day and puts a murderous spin on its central hook (don't worry, Scott Lobdell's script acknowledges this source via a winking gag). Instead of a local weatherman having to live the same shitty pseudo-holiday over and over again, our liquor swilling house bunny has to endure a brutal death at the hands of a masked madman until she both solves her own case and atones for being an altogether shitty person.
Slasher films have always been pious propositions (as drugs and sex inevitably lead to another form of bodily penetration), but Happy Death Day takes the formula and remixes it into a morality play.Tree (Rothe) wakes up one morning in the dorm room of film student Carter Davis (who feels liked the collegiate iteration of Randy from Scream, what with the Repo Man and They Live posters on his walls). Hungover and really not ready to face the world, Tree chokes down some aspirin, throws her clothes on, blows past Carter's obnoxious roommate (who really just wants to know if his boy tapped that shit), stomps across Bayview University's campus, refuses to give the last hunk she went on a date with (Caleb Spillyard) the time of day, rolls her eyes at the sorority's President (Rachel Matthews) reminding her about a lunch meeting, and discards the cupcake her nursing student roommate (Ruby Modine) baked from scratch for Tree's birthday, all while ignoring calls from her dad (that come in with possibly the catchiest, day specific ringtone ever). That night, while walking to a party at the Sigma house, she's brutally murdered by a man wearing a mask that looks like a cross between Bob's Big Boy and the mutant baby from Larry Cohen's It's Alive movies, resetting the clock so she's right back in Carter's room, waking up to live it all over again. Tree's Phil Connors with Greek letters on her sweater, every reaction to repetition causing slight variations in otherwise idential twenty-four hour periods.
Happy Death Day is an absolutely gorgeous film - slickly shot by cinematographer Toby Oliver, it fits squarely into the same Twilight Zone-esque heightened reality as Get Out (which Oliver also acted as DP on). There's a candy coated texture covering the entirety of Happy Death Day that never lets you forget you're watching a movie; a glossy artiface Brian De Palma could admire (along with a split diopter shot during an early murder scene that's just wicked). Landon's style is so self-assured that it's difficult not to fall in love with just how arrogant the whole exercise feels. A horror-themed Groundhog Day riff should not work this well, but the microcosm of Bayview comes alive with a verve that transcends its meager $5 million budget. Each scene is either scored with vibrant radio hits, or has some form of earworm playing in the background. The women of Lobdell's script toss snarky one-liners at one another and the men who pursue them, each bit of dialogue just elevated enough to never feel like it'd come out of a real college kid's mouth. When the murders occur, Landon indulges in modern slasher tropes instead of subverting them, shooting sorority house and hospital hallways with a roaming Steadicam that zooms ahead of the killer's intended victims as if strapped to a rocket pack. To wit, Happy Death Day is just a fun movie to watch from a pure aesthetic perspective, so thoroughly committed to being a work of pop confection (including a straight up visual swipe from Sixteen Candles) that it doubles as a coming out party for Landon, whose name should now register with horror geeks whenever he becomes attached to a project.
However, nothing in Happy Death Day would work if it weren't for Rothe, who takes the Sorority Girl slasher movie archetype and completely reworks it into a real human being, transforming before our eyes from stone cold isolationist bitch to a young woman who's vulnerable and wounded, memories of a dead mother coming to the surface whenever she sees "DAD" diplayed on her incoming call log. In a way, those letters on her chest become a weird suit of armor she uses to try and hide her true feelings behind, indulging in social hierarchy acts of cruelty as a means to hide away from any problems she may be experiencing in life. Her affair with a hunky professor (Charles Aitken) allows Tree to shun the "boys" she's surrounded by for the arms of a "real man", despite never giving a single thought to the wife he's hurting every time he throws her on top of his desk.
By the time Tree's battling back against her relentless attacker and investigating the members of this undergrad community who may be wearing the mask and exacting vengeance on the icy mistress, we're seeing a young woman confront her own wrongdoings for the first time, gradually shifting her soul away from callous damnation and actually considering the fact that a good person like Carter may have something to offer beyond cheap booze and sex. This might all sound corny (and some of it admittedly is), but again it's an act of utter devotion to this weird genre universe that Landon's constructed, where she becomes its beating, beautiful heart. It's a terrific performance in a subgenre of horror not normally known for containing acting this strong.
We all fuck up. We wrong friends, lovers, parents, and even those who barely count as aquaintances, sometimes without thinking about how our actions impact these people. Happy Death Day takes that notion but then tosses in a weird sense of hope for change, that again would feel out of place inside a simple slasher had its director not brought this work of cartoonish genre cinema to life with such thorough attention to aesthetics and emotional detail. The question the movie asks inside of this meticulously constructed world is: would you become a better person if given a chance to recognize these mistakes? Again, it's the same moral interrogation Groundhog Day posed inside a template all its own, only Landon & Co. decided that murder set piece theatrics could help heighten their movie's message while delivering a healthy dose of cheap thrills for horror devotees. The resulting work of pop cinema is almost perfect, and possibly the very best deconstruction the slasher film has seen since Wes Craven's '96 masterwork. Happy Death Day is a film that recognizes the judgement the subgenre passes on its players, and then turns that lens on its head, using the killer as motivation for the character to reflect on who she is, and how she can improve herself (or die trying).