On paper, almost nothing is actually good about Happy Death Day. And yet, almost certainly, it gave me more pleasure to watch it than any other 2017 horror movie. On such paradoxes is a love of art founded.

Although I'm being a bit dismissive. While most everything about Happy Death Day can be accurately predicted from the most snottily dismissive one-sentence description - "Groundhog Day as a stakes-free PG-13 slasher movie"* - there's at least one thing that comes as a wholly gratifying surprise: Jessica Rothe is at least moderately fantastic in the lead role. That being a certain Tree Gelbman, a nasty-minded sorority girl at Bayview University celebrating her birthday today (which birthday isn't specified, though I think there's ample reason to speculate that it's good ol' #21). Now, in life, I suppose it's possible that many a decent young person has been christened Tree, but Happy Death Day is a movie, and so there are only two options: zoned-out peacenik hippy, or monstrously selfish, image-obsessed mean girl. And I've already told you that she's in a sorority.

And the rest goes on from there: Groundhog Day means that Tree will have to keep reliving this irritating day until she finally starts to become a halfway decent person, and slasher movie means that the mechanism which sends her back to the same morning is that she's violently murdered by an unseen assailant, hiding behind the ubiquitous mask of the Bayview Babies football team, found all over campus on this homecoming eve.

And while the film never comes and says the phrase "Bayview Babies", the fact that it takes about a quarter of a second of mental work to come up with is as good a reason as any to bring up the film's very sensible decision to take absolutely none of this terribly serious. I'm not in the common order of things very well-disposed to slasher movies that would like to be anything other than slasher movies, and use a slick, jokey tone to foreground that fact, but Happy Death Day is doing something different enough to endear it to me. It's the subtle difference between "this is dumb, and I'm letting you join me in mocking it" and "this is dumb, and oh what fun it shall be!"

Because my word, but Happy Death Day is quite a lot of fun; more fun than a slasher has been in many weeks and days. Even when it's at its most explicitly thrilling and wannabe frightening, it's never really trying to be scary. It's got the jolly, corny jump-out-and-say-boo mentality of a rickety old haunted house put up around Halloween by kids whose enthusiasm outstrips their resources. And I don't know if director Christopher Landon and screenwriter Scott Lobdell necessarily have it in them to make a better scary movie than this, but I'll register my absolute confidence that Happy Death Day is no accident. For that, we need only look as far as Rothe, whose performance has to do quite a genuinely surprising number of things given the low-brow targets the film sets for itself. Among other things that we'll turn to in a moment, Rothe needs to project a very particular mentality, which is that Tree finds the act of constantly dying traumatising and terrifying, but she finds each individual death mostly a tedious annoyance. During one of her earliest trips through the cycle, Tree enlists the help of the chipper, oddly credulous, and obviously infatuated Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) to make sense of what's going on, and his advice is to use all of her deaths as problem-solving excuses; that is, since she'll just keep respawning, follow different people and do different things to try to figure out who's killing her. And from that moment on, her ordeal resembles less somebody trying to avoid a psychopathic killer, and more somebody who's burning through a lot of one-ups trying to figure out some unreasonably daunting passage in one of those artificially hard 8-bit Nintendo games.

The result, for most of the film's middle, is much closer to a pure comedy than a slasher film, and Rothe's sardonic way of inhabiting the character makes it, by and large, a very good one. It is very much like that bit in Edge of Tomorrow where Tom Cruise keeps getting run over by a truck, incrementally advancing with every death, only extended to about 40 minutes rather than five. This takes us awfully far afield of anything that a film called Happy Death Day should really be providing, but in a way, it's just pragmatism. A PG-13 slasher film is already fighting blindfolded, with both hands tied behind its back. Happy Death Day simply has the good sense to embrace its sterility, and exaggerate all the things that typify PG-13 horror - the silliness of the jump scares, the total lack of consequence in the deaths, the overall teen drama sensibility - and find ways to position them as strengths rather than limitations.

Anyway, when it's not busy being playful and funny and really not in the least ways scary (but eh, who cares!), the movie is playing at Groundhog Day's redemption arc, and this also perhaps impressed me too much. The interesting thing about Happy Death Day, unlike Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, is that it's not really predicated on Tree reinventing herself to be a better person. She has to learn what her personality flaws are, including haughty superiority over her sorority sisters, passive aggressive rage against her dad, and fucking her married professor, but in correcting them she still remains, essentially, the same person. Rather than tossing out the "flighty sorority material girl" handbook, she simply finds a way to reshape it into something positive, uplifting, and productive. And this too is a more interesting challenge to Rothe than the film immediately announces, and one she resolves in more interesting ways than the film inherently demands. Anyway, it's not like a slasher movie is ever going to result in an all-time great dramatic character; years hence, we will not see the great actors vying to offer their interpretation of the subtleties of Tree Gelbman. But for what the film is, she's an astoundingly nuanced and slippery character, and her arc is legitimately rich and dare I say it, emotionally involving.

All of this isn't to say that the film's not still primarily a slasher film; it is. And by the standards of slasher films, an accomplished one; by the standards of PG-13 slasher films, an extravagant masterpiece. The baby mask is strange enough to be actually weird, and in the moments when the film tries to play the stalking and killing for suspense rather than comedy, it mostly succeeds. I'm no fan at all of its generically-mandated twist ending, which is less rousing and satisfying than the first fake-out climax, and frankly a bit more cynical and mean. But somehow, that ends up feeling like the least important part of a movie that's otherwise content to be a cheery lark, evoking the frantic pace of college in a pleasing way, loving and poppy and insubstantial (the note-perfect song cues help out with this as much as anything). It's a fun little goof for horror movie fans, nodding in the direction of every ossified trope, right down to the confrontation in a creepily empty, industrial-looking hospital. I cannot imagine how somebody could even pretend to be scared by any of this, but the film's willingness to embrace and work with the essential not-scariness of the whole damn genre is its most charming strength. Slasher movies are, not so secretly, mostly fun because of how cheesy they are, and there's something incredibly pleasurable about a slasher film that foregrounds that fact rather than trying to disguise that.

*It even goes so far as to name drop Groundhog Day in a scene that does double duty: first to head off the "why don't the characters realise that they're living through the plot of a very famous movie" criticism that people will make about films like this, for reasons that evade me; second to slip in a "kids these days don't want any movies made before they were born" joke that very much hit me where I live.