by Leigh Paatsch
AN APPEALINGLY appalling teen-horror thriller, Happy Death Day chucks Groundhog Day into a microwave with the first Scream movie, and turns all the controls way up to the max.
Cleverly, the filmmakers know we'll all gonna keep watching to see what happens, even if it is against our better judgment.
Surprisingly, Happy Death Day never quite self-combusts, or even melts down into a glob of gory goo (though it does emit some whiffy fumes at times).
No, this is actually a tight, well-packaged effort: capable of raising tension levels into the dread zone when needs be, and just as capable of cracking a gag or three about how ridiculous the whole exercise is becoming.
Little-known Jessica Rothe stars as Tree, a self-obsessed college student trapped in a terminal time loop, for reasons which will never be sufficiently explained.
Not that it matters one iota. Happy Death Day is not here to re-prove Einstein's Theory of Relativity. It is here to pick you up and take you on a pulpy, gulpy thrill ride.
A typical day for Tree runs something like this. Each morning at 9.00am, she wakes up in someone else's room across campus.
She gets dressed. Does the tradition walk of shame back to her sorority house, where her roommate will remind her that today is her birthday.
Then it's off to a day of classes, interspersed with a steamy hook-up with a married professor, a fractious meeting with her sorority sisters, and preparations for a party later in the evening.
By midnight, Tree will have died a terrible death at the hands of a masked killer. Then her alarm goes off, and the whole surreal ordeal starts over.
To stop finishing the day on such a bum note, this determined young woman must sift for clues about her assassin's identity every time she is about to die.
Poor old Tree gets lopped over 20 times during the movie, so the investigation could take a while.
Though this movie is as disposable and dumb as such fare can be, it delivers its unrefined batch of goods in full, thanks to two key factors.
Firstly, the Groundhog Day repetition thing never gets old. Done right, like it is here, it forces the plotting to drop a lot of excess baggage.
Secondly, the casting of Rothe in the lead role of Tree is a masterstroke. For someone whose acting CV is mostly C-list TV, she is a real find. Someone who can repeatedly switch between confident, annoying, amusing and vulnerable - so quickly and so precisely - has real skills.
At its best, Happy Death Day is big, trashy fun, best seen with small expectations. At its worst, it's just trash ... but it's still fun!
Happy Death Day
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews.
Director: Christopher Landon
Verdict: 3.5 stars