Among the numerous indignities for which 2017 will be long remembered is the fact that it produced not one but two PG-13 “Groundhog Day” riffs about bratty young women reliving the day on which they are killed. The first, “Before I Fall,” was drenched in high school angst; the second, “Happy Death Day,” is set among college students and takes the mystery/thriller route (with a hint of slasher), with mostly agreeable results. “I’ve seen worse!” I declared happily upon exiting the theater.
At Louisiana’s fictional Bayfield University, an undergrad named Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on her birthday hungover and embarrassed. “Am I in a dorm room?” she asks disdainfully of its owner, Carter (Israel Broussard), a polite fellow student with whom she evidently hooked up last night. She hurries home to her sorority house, where her sensitive roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine), has a cupcake for her; rushes to class; makes out with her professor (Charles Aitken); goes to a party later that night; and gets murdered on her way home. The killer is someone wearing a creepy mask representing Bayfield’s ill-advised mascot: a baby. They are the Bayfield Babies. I don’t know either.
No sooner is Tree felled by a knife-wielding baby than she wakes up in Carter’s dorm room again and lives out her final birthday anew. She spends most of it thinking she’s just having weird deja vu, but by murder time she has the good sense to take an alternate route home. Doesn’t matter. She gets killed anyway and returns to the starting point.
With Carter’s help, Tree decides her best shot at breaking the time loop is to figure out who keeps killing her and stop him or her from doing that. But the list of people with motive is lengthy when you’re a bit of a mean girl who lives with other mean girls. There’s Danielle (Rachel Matthews), whose boyfriend Tree made out with while she was drunk. Or the boyfriend himself, Nick (Blaine Kern III), who’s been known to wear the baby mask. Or Tim (Caleb Spillyards), whom she dated once and has been stalked by ever since. Or the professor she’s sleeping with, or his wife (Laura Clifon), or “the Uber driver that I spit on last week,” or any number of others. Oh, and she keeps dodging a birthday phone call from her dad, for whatever that’s worth.
The efficient screenplay, by X-Men comic book writer Scott Lobdell, doesn’t insult its target audience’s intelligence, though it’s undercooked in other areas. The intriguing possibility of Tree’s repeated violent deaths having an aggregate effect on her body is introduced but quickly discarded; her dislike of her birthday is a non-issue (the reason for it even more so); and it’s not quite explained how Tree and roommate Lori are so closely affiliated with the university hospital. (Are they med students? Is everyone in the film a med student?) Some key sequences are set in that hospital, by the way, which like all horror hospitals is dimly lit, understaffed, and has almost no patients.
“Happy Death Day” is only technically a horror movie, though. Director Christopher Landon (“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) doesn’t play up the scares or suspense, focusing instead on Tree’s character arc, solving the whodunit (the whosgonnadoit?), and having fun with the premise. It’s a fairly solid genre exercise with satisfactory performances and perhaps even a surprise or two, depending on how many of these you’ve seen. If we’re doomed to watch the same movies over and over (and we evidently are), at least this one makes an effort.
B- (1 hr., 36 min.; )