Happy Death Day film review: scream and scream again

Scream meets Groundhog Day in this smart time-looping horror

Tree (Jessica Rothe) didn’t have a great birthday. First she woke up hungover in a stranger’s dorm room, then she was late to school, and then her sorority sister ruined her outfit by spilling a drink all over her. Just to put the cherry on the crappy cake, she got stabbed to death on her way to her party.

But it doesn’t end there. Instead of staying dead, Tree wakes up in the same dorm room again, with the same hangover, and a nagging feeling she’s seen all of this before. Trapped in a Groundhog Day-style time loop, Tree’s stuck reliving the worst day of her life over and over again. Her only hope is to unmask her killer and try to survive the day…

Directed by Paranormal Activity 3 writer Christopher Landon and written by Uncanny X-Men writer Scott Lobdell, Happy Death Day is the smartest slasher you’ll see this year. Despite the fact that there’s only one victim, its villain – a cloaked figure in a ghoulish baby mask – pulls off a variety of creative and violent kills. And despite the fact that we know Tree’s going to wake up in bed again every time she dies, the film manages to make her plight feel increasingly urgent as her deaths mount up.

With its satisfyingly twisty mystery and its many visual and verbal nods to other genre films, Happy Death Day feels like a spiritual successor to Wes Craven’s Scream. Like Scream, it’s got a sharp sense of humour; like Scream, it takes a fresh approach to familiar material. Its box office success might also spark another slasher renaissance, just like Scream did in the late 90s.

But even if that doesn’t happen, it ought to make a star of Jessica Rothe. She manages to sell every step of Tree’s journey from smart-mouthed mean girl to kickass final girl, even making a romantic subplot seem authentic (even sweet!). And she’s got killer comic timing, as a second act montage of stalking-while-being-stalked proves.

If you’re looking for outright scares, you might be disappointed; for a slasher, Happy Death Day is also very light on bloodshed. But it’s got real heart – for a film about death, it’s surprisingly life-affirming.