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‘Happy Death Day’ is basically ‘Groundhog Day’ reimagined as a teenage slasher movie

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Nevertheless, savvy Catholics might notice there's something to learn here about sin, reparation, and Purgatory.

Tree Gelbman is not a nice person. She’s a self-centered sorority mean girl with little concern for those she thoughtlessly hurts. Maybe such glaring personality faults are the result of the tragedy Tree experienced a few years earlier. Maybe it’s just because she had to grow up with the name Tree. Whatever the reason, her actions have given plenty of people good cause to dislike the young Ms. Gelbman. But who among those had enough motive to kill Tree on her birthday? That’s the mystery at the heart of Happy Death Day, Blumhouse Productions’ latest foray into the horror genre.

Fortunately for Tree, she’s going to have plenty of time to figure out who it was that murdered her. That’s because each time the killer in the creepy baby mask successfully dispatches her, Tree reawakens on the morning of her “death day” and is forced to relive the whole series of events leading to her demise again and again and again. Yes, Happy Death Day is basically Groundhog Day reimagined as a teenage slasher movie, a fact the movie blithely acknowledges by having a character announce, “Hey, you know what this reminds me of? Groundhog Day.”

That should provide a good idea of the level of seriousness with which Happy Death Day approaches its material. As movies like Salvage (2006) and Triangle (2009) have shown, the idea of being stuck in a time loop can be played to horrific effect. Happy Death Day is having none of that. The script by noted comic book author Scott Lobdell is more than content to follow Groundhog Day’s lead and allow the humorous aspects of the setup to take front and center.

So, while Tree’s initial encounter with her baby-faced killer is played straight, each subsequent death takes on more and more comedic overtones. Every morning Tree awakens to track possible suspects, only to have the real culprit inevitably appear and end her life in some ludicrous fashion designed to elicit more laughs than screams. By the time Tree has crossed off most of the names on her list, it wouldn’t feel at all out of place to see her die by slipping on a banana peel.

Not only does Happy Death Day lean more toward Groundhog Day’s whimsical take on time loops, it also shamelessly rips off Bill Murray’s entire character arc for its own main protagonist. Tree starts the movie as a selfish and occasionally cruel individual. However, by the third act, Tree has begun to see the experience as an opportunity to correct some of her more glaring personal flaws.

Written by a devotee of Zen Buddhism, Groundhog Day’s central conceit was heavily influenced by the Buddhist notion of samsara, the belief that we are continuously reincarnated in the physical world until we obtain enlightenment and abandon our self-centered ways. Nevertheless, savvy Catholics couldn’t help but notice the many similarities of Bill Murray’s situation to that of being in Purgatory.

It’s much the same for Tree in Happy Death Day. In order to put an end to the constant cycle of reliving the same day over and over again, Tree must learn the identity of her killer and stop him/her before the murder can take place. To accomplish this, she must first create a list of suspects, and the only way to do that is to examine the things she did to hurt the people in her life. In short, Tree must confront her sins and expiate them before she is allowed to move on to her next destination. Alas, much as in Purgatory, there is some amount of pain involved in the whole process.

Such ruminations are for after the movie, however. For its part, Happy Death Day mostly avoids such serious subject matter, focusing instead on providing bloodless PG-13 fodder for those seeking a little lighthearted horror for the Halloween season. In that respect, the movie is successful, entertaining enough, but average in its execution and quickly forgotten once it’s over. Unless you’ve been really bad, that is, in which case you may have to sit through it more than once.

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