Happy Death Day review: Scream queen Jessica Rothe kicks cliché’s butt

Charlotte O'Sullivan
High notes: Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is having a very bad birthday: Universal Pictures

This is the little Blumhouse-produced film that last weekend made Blade Runner 2049 look bloated.

Thanks to great word of mouth, the low-budget horror comedy went to No1 in the US. To put it another way, America dumped sweetheart Ryan Gosling for a blind date with Jessica Rothe.

True, the 30-year-old isn’t a complete unknown. She and Gosling were co-stars in La La Land. That said, you probably didn’t notice her face in the crowd. Five foot four, blonde, with a goofy smile, she looks like a million other actresses, most notably Blake Lively and Goldie Hawn. A few years ago she changed her surname from the obviously Jewish-sounding Rothenberg to the more goy-friendly Rothe. How’s that for bland ambition?

She deserves a second glance because she’s so in tune with Scott Lobdell’s screenplay. The violence. The uncouthness. The meta-wit. Not since Sarah Michelle Gellar morphed into Buffy has a fair-haired female kicked cliché’s butt with such relish.

Tree Gelbman (Rothe) is a cynical, selfish (but also complicated and appealing) college girl forced to relive a single day (her birthday), which always starts with her waking up in a random boy’s dorm and always ends with her being killed by a figure in a chubby-cheeked mask.

In that the time-loop concept owes everything to Groundhog Day (already recycled, by the way, in the Buffy episode, Life Serial), Happy Death Day should feel like a knock-off. It doesn’t. Groundhog Day itself was a God-less riff on A Christmas Carol, and all sorts of new tensions are created by placing an anti-social girl on the road to redemption. Tree’s only moral guide is a sweet, virginal boy (Israel Broussard). It’s hilarious watching the pair try (again and again) to fix what ain’t woke.

Admittedly, nothing matches the best bits of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s surreal take-down of paranoid, racist America. Both films come from the Blumhouse stable and prove that a spoonful of fear makes the left-field medicine go down. Visually, however, director Christopher Landon takes fewer chances. With the sound turned down we could be watching any brightly coloured, youth-orientated yarn.

Then again, Get Out’s ending was a bit of a let-down, while this film finishes on a high. The twist holds up to scrutiny and one of the very last gags (concerning mean girls and Crocs) encapsulates the joys of screwball farce. Landon’s scary movie offers a short, sharp shock to the system. Let it make your day.