Combining a Groundhog Day style time-loop, some beloved slasher tropes, an intriguing whodunnit mystery, and some deliciously camp humour, Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day brought some fresh life to a stagnant teen horror scene and smashed the 2017 box office in the process.
At the time of its release, there had been very few teen horror films worth breaking a sweat over. Aside from 2014’s innovative Skype revenge film Unfriended, the average mainstream teen horror has revolved around limp paranormal threats like The Bye Bye Man (2017) or hackneyed haunted Hasbro games like Ouija (2014). The average teenage scream was beginning to amount to little more than a series of tedious jump scares, overdone tropes, and a set of half-written characters that audiences could care less about the survival of.
Perhaps part of the reason why Happy Death Day became such a massive, surprise hit (amassing an incredible $125 million at the worldwide box office on a budget of $4.8 million), and has spawned an upcoming sequel ( Happy Death Day 2U) is because it does what few mainstream teen horror films have been doing lately: it commits to serving up a legit good time. The plot follows a mean-spirited, jaded party girl named Tree (Jessica Roethe) as she’s forced to relive the same fatal day until she can uncover the identity of her killer. The film is as boisterous and sassy as it is fresh and rejuvenating to the genre.
For one thing, Happy Death Day is blissfully free of shoddy jump scares and is stacked full of warm, witty and well-written characters (the likes of which have been notably absent from just about every major studio teen horror of the past decade). The film is also refreshingly short on gore or cynicism, making a startling change from the nihilistic torture porn that has dominated the mainstream side of the genre in the past 20 years.
Instead, Happy Death Day seems purposefully designed in acknowledgment that the best teen horror movies aren’t necessarily the ones that shock or scare us the most, but the ones that we have the most fun watching. It could even be argued that some of the core tropes at work in Happy Death Day — the bitchy sorority sisters who get their comeuppance and the adorkable outcast (Israel Broussard) who gets the hot girl — are actually those of teen movies, rather than horror, which is possibly why it can be so frivolous, camp and lighthearted. Happy Death Day is essentially a coming of age story about a girl who is repeatedly and violently denied the opportunity to grow up. As a result, Tree’s journey isn’t just about survival. Like Cher Horowitz in Clueless or Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, it’s also about the character growing up to become a better version of herself.
The film fully embraces the absurdity of its coming-of-age, time-looping slasher premise (including a winking line that suggests Tree has never heard even heard of Groundhog Day) and leans right into the cartoonish absurdity of its masked villain, Baby Face. This is a tactile killer who hides behind the preposterous cherub-faced mask of the school mascot but who is just as lethal with a cupcake as they are wielding a knife. The villain might be a little silly, but that’s not to say the movie doesn’t still have its moments where Baby Face is as chilling a threat as any other slasher killer. Whether they’re lunging at Tree with a machete or standing perfectly still behind a music box in an empty tunnel, it’s easy for the villain’s comedic presence to quickly become unnerving. The movie knows where that fine line between laughter and fear is, and it smartly jabs between the two at every opportunity.
That Baby Face has become an almost instant teen horror icon is an especially huge accomplishment when you consider that the majority of recent teen horror movies haven’t just been mostly unremarkable, they’ve also been completely void of a unique and potentially iconic villain. Realistically, nobody is going to be having nightmares about lanky penny boy The Bye Bye Man or refusing to play drinking games ever again thanks to whatever demonic nun is giving college kids those janky CGI grins in Truth or Dare. And frankly, doesn’t our generation deserve a killer anywhere close to the original Ghostface from Scream or Mrs Voorhees from Friday the 13th? You’re damn right we do.
This is probably Happy Death Day’s strongest hand. Though the film pays loving homage to many teen horror tropes, it does something new enough with them for a generation who are likely fed up with being tossed the tired hand-me-downs of their parents’ pop culture. During the film, for instance, Tree becomes the embodiment of what Carol Clover once coined as the Final Girl in her seminal book Men, Women and Chainsaws: “She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued … or to kill him herself.” Except, while she’s clearly the only person who can defeat Baby Face, she’s not the last standing survivor by the end of the film. In fact, the only finale she accepts is the one where everyone besides the killer is left standing by the end.
Likewise, when we’re first introduced to Tree, she’s the stereotypical horror movie mean girl, the one that slasher movie tradition usually dictates will be killed off swiftly and horrifically as punishment for her bad attitude. In a way, that’s exactly what happens to the character — over and over again. But in the process of reliving the same day and becoming body bait for Baby Face, Tree evolves from being the Alpha bitch of her sorority to being the good girl, and the hero. “Every slasher film opens up with the mean girl getting killed and the good girl living till the end,’ said screenwriter Scott Lobdell of his intentional subversion of slasher movie tropes. “I thought, ‘How can I make the mean girl and the good girl the same person?’”
In many ways you could say the teen horror genre has been stuck on a time loop of its own, regurgitating the same stock characters and narratives without any sense of fun or innovation. But by breaking down the genre and playing with its parts, it seems like the Happy Death Day movies may just have finally broken the cycle.
Happy Death Day 2U is released 13 February.