Given its derivative premise and PG-13 rating, it was incredibly tempting for horror fans to roll their eyes and quickly forget about 2017’s Happy Death Day. And the film could have just as easily have “lived down” to these expectations.
Instead, it wound up being an instant cult classic. So as writer/director Christopher Landon releases his next film Freaky this week, let’s take a look back at what made his previous film so beloved.
Addressing Its Own Plot
Happy Death Day is far from the first (or only) movie to utilize the “time loop” premise made famous by Groundhog Day.
We saw Tom Cruise fighting aliens day after day in Edge of Tomorrow, we saw Jake Gyllenhaal trying to stop a terrorist day after day in Source Code, we saw Zoey Deutch figure out her love life day after day in Before I Fall, and we’ve since seen the incredibly meta day after day analysis with Palm Springs in 2020.
And aside from this year’s Palm Springs, Happy Death Day is the only one of these movies that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has fun with its premise and even references Groundhog Day.
The whole “time loop” narrative has almost become a subgenre on its own, but because of the way that Happy Death Day approaches it with humor and slasher tropes, it’s the most memorable since Groundhog Day.
A Protagonist to Root For
Many horror films are criticized for not having any likeable characters, and at the beginning of this one, that would be a valid criticism.
But much like the aforementioned Bill Murray classic, repeating the day over and over gives our main character Tree (Jessica Rothe) an opportunity to grow in a legitimately well-written character arc.
At the beginning, she’s self-centered, treats her roommate Lori horribly (which comes back to bite her), ignores her grieving father after her mother’s death, and is having an affair with her married professor.
But trying to solve the mystery of who’s killing her day after day gives Tree the chance to reflect on what a terrible person she’s been and change. Slasher films so rarely include a strong character arc like this, and it makes for a really refreshing change.
2019 saw the inevitable sequel, Happy Death Day 2U (also written and directed by Christopher Landon). Most sequels just do the exact same thing again, which this movie does, but in a completely different and creative way.
Less of a horror film, and more science fiction, Happy Death Day 2U goes down a very strange and even wacky path that most fans either love or hate, but at least it’s something completely different and creative. It also makes for a really interesting back to back watch with the original, which sort of reinforces the whole day after day narrative.
Despite their PG-13 rating, both movies contain a wide variety of kills (mostly with Tree herself as the victim). Because she gets killed day after day, the movies find fun and creative ways to kill her, including stabbings by knives and shattered bongs, electrocution, poisoning, diving head first into a wood chipper, and skydiving in a bikini with no parachute.
It’s a lot more fun and different than most slasher films are. The kills aren’t overly bloody, but they’re just as effective and because Tree wakes up as she dies, it makes a lot of sense that we wouldn’t see the aftermath of any of them.
Releasing in theaters this week, Freaky takes a similar previously used premise, but puts a horror spin on it. If it’s even half as fun or creative as Happy Death Day, it will be a worthy follow up for Christopher Landon. But even if it’s not, we’ll still always have this really fun double feature to watch over and over, day after day!