When Groundhog Day first dropped in 1993, it was a modest success from director Harold Ramis. Yet some 24 years later, the time loop comedy has become a classic: not just because the appreciation for the film itself has grown, but it weirdly ended up creating its own genre. While ‘Groundhog Day’ as a phrase worked its way into the pop culture lexicon by being used whenever it felt like events were repeating themselves, it also spawned a series of movies that tried to copy its central premise of the day cycling over and over and over again. Note: There’s a great list of the top 10 Groundhog Day movies over at Variety, which might be the best example of highbrow trolling in recent times. Romantic comedies tried it (About Time, 12 Dates Of Christmas), action movies tried it the most (everything from Source Code to Run Lola Run) and – perhaps most interestingly – the horror genre. It’s into this space Happy Death Day struts, produced by the ever-reliable Jason Blum and his team at Blumhouse Pictures.
Happy Death Day starts out as your run-of-the-mill slasher, with Jessica Rothe playing bitchy college student Tree who goes about her birthday up until the point she is butchered by a knife-wielding psycho in a mask. So far, so slasher. Yet then she wakes up, back in someone else’s bed on the previous morning, she’s forced to relive the events again as the mystery killer keeps coming up with inventive ways to wipe her off the grid. Back in 2007 Megan Fox was set to star in the lead role, with Michael Bay producing through his company Platinum Dunes, which is known for its horror and genre fare. Thankfully that didn’t come to pass, as Happy Death Day in the hands of the Blumhouse Pictures team has likely gone in a much more creative, original and less-shit direction. The writer and director Christopher Landon is balls-deep in the Blumhouse team, having worked on their most successful franchise (Paranormal Activity) along with Viral and Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse. Like most Blumhouse movies, it has a budget towards the lower end of the scale – $4.8M – and like most Blumhouse movies, they make that budget streeeeetch.
The biggest surprise of all though, is Happy Death Day is good: really good. Part of the Groundhog Day convention is that you have to hate the character to start off with so they have an opportunity to go on a redemptive arc with each attempt at repeating that day. That works particularly well within the rules of a slasher, as Tree is an awful human who the audience doesn’t mind watching die the first few times. As the film rolls on, she doesn’t change as a person, but you begin to understand why she is the way she is – and so does she. The film is also funny, loaded with sassy sorority lines and physical humour that you can pull off when mortality isn’t an issue. It’s thrilling rather than scary and there’s very little gore to speak of. In fact, if you weren’t a horror fan this would be the perfect entry-level movie for you while at the same time being clever enough to please genre diehards. What’s most surprising are the twists, which are truly a revelation given that you’re watching the same day a dozen or so times and they still manage to slip things by you. Rothe infuses what could have been a two-dimensional character with charisma and compassion and charm. Happy Death Day is fun in a way that time loop movies in the horror genre rarely are. Heck, it’s one of the funniest movies of 2017 – period.
The subgenre of Groundhog Day time loop films is one that has been milked in horror, with varying results. First, it has to be pointed out that there is a distinction between time travel movies and time loop movies. Back To The Future is a time travel movie. Edge Of Tomorrow is a time loop movie. A flick like Predestination, for example, is that rare hybrid which straddles the line between both (and made by Aussie horror twins the Spierig Bros, who we have spoken about in this column before). The not-so-great Butterfly Effect with Ashton Kutcher in 2004 was also one of those that jumped between time loop and time travel, as well as whether it was a horror – thriller – or drama. Its indecision on all counts was one of the film’s biggest problems, but Camp Daze came just a year later in 2005 and – despite being considerably lower budget – was truly a time loop movie. A bunch of present-day teens get transported back to a summer camp in 1981 where they’re forced to fight for their lives against a Jason Voorhees-esque serial killer: over and over again. It’s similar to the plot of The Final Girls, which dropped in 2015 but was released to Aussie audiences in 2016. It saw a teen girl and her pals – who were obsessed with a schlocky Friday The 13th rip-off – get sucked into the movie (which also stars her now-dead mother). They have to use their knowledge of the flick and repeat viewings to their advantage if they want to survive. Haunter from 2013 starred Abigail Breslin as a young teen who’s the only one in her family aware that they’re repeating the same day over and over, and must stay one-step ahead of a murderer known as the Pale Man. Then there’s the Australian film Triangle from 2009, packing a cast that featured Melissa George and Liam Hemsworth as part of a group who wind up on a ghost ship. Things aren’t quite as they seem and time comes in to play, but truthfully the less you know about this under-seen gem the better it is.
Besides Happy Death Day, we’ve already had one time loop movie in 2017, which was even targeted at a similar audience: Zoey Deutch-vehicle Before I Fall.
Groundhog Day-ing as a device seems to be something endlessly appealing to producers and filmmakers alike (given they keep trying to give us alternate versions of it). The beauty of deploying it in the horror genre is that it’s what audiences have been doing in their heads anyway. When they leave the movie, they replay the events over in their minds minute-by-minute as they try to imagine what they would have done in that scenario or different decisions the characters could have made to avoid grisly fates. A Groundhog Day horror movie plays those possibilities out with the audience along for the ride. And as Edge Of Tomorrow showed us with it’s big budget, blockbuster sheen, it can be really fun to watch the hero live, die and repeat.
Happy Death Day gives viewers the opportunity to be better than the killer, to outsmart them through the vehicle of the main character. It mightn’t have any long lasting lessons to teach us about seizing the day or treasuring every moment blah blah, but like many of its horror predecessors it’s an enjoyable ride. Even if by the end of that trip you may have a little blood splatter on you.
Maria Lewis is a journalist and author previously seen on SBS Viceland’s The Feed. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016 with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – out now. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz