Posted on October 18, 2017

Happy Death Day and Life’s Trauma

Dawn Keetley

With Happy Death Day, Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions continue their string of innovative and high-quality horror films (The Purge, The Gift, Split, The Visit, Unfriended, Get Out). Directed by Christopher B. Landon and written by Scott Lobdell Jr., Happy Death Day is, of course, not completely original (what is?). Its premise echoes the 2017 teen drama, Before I Fall (Ry Russo-Young), which is based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Lauren Oliver. And it is deeply and self-consciously indebted to the brilliant Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993). That said, though, while Happy Death Day isn’t groundbreaking, it is a fresh approach to the slasher film. Its success is due not least to the fabulous performances of its two leads—Jessica Rothe who plays Tree and Israel Broussard as Carter. The supporting cast is also great, including Rachel Matthews as uber-bitch sorority queen, Danielle.

The film follows college student Tree after she wakes up on her birthday in a relative stranger’s (Carter’s) dorm room after a night of hard drinking. She cavalierly goes through her post-debauch day, revealing how fundamentally unpleasant she is to everyone around her. On her way to a party that night, she’s murdered by a masked figure—only to wake up in Carter’s room on her birthday again. The day keeps repeating and, as you might imagine, Tree experiences a variety of shocked and panicked emotions before she starts trying to take control of her experience, figure out what’s going on, and stop the cycle.

Although Happy Death Day pays homage to Groundhog Day (“Ever heard of Groundhog Day?” Carter asks her at the end), it isn’t Groundhog Day—and doesn’t aspire to be. In the earlier film, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) has endless time—endless repetitions of a single day—to figure out what makes life worth living. And he has no task but to try to answer that question for himself. Tree has no such luxury: every time she’s killed, she comes back weaker, and she doesn’t know how many days she has left. She must, therefore, figure out who is trying to kill her as quickly as she can. Only incidentally can she spend time pondering the meaning of life and why she’s such a bad person.

Happy Death Day, then, is Groundhog Day for millennials, who no longer have the time or the inclination to grapple with deep existential questions. At best, they try to manage decency while dealing with more important things. Maybe that’s enough philosophy for a slasher film anyway. And in the process of figuring out why someone might want to kill her, Tree does come to some realizations about her corrosive meanness and indifference to the people in her life.

Jessica Rothe as Tree and Israel Broussard as Carter

The film also, though, does something that Groundhog Day doesn’t, precisely because it’s a slasher film. At the end of every day, Tree suffers horrible violence from a masked assailant—and that repetitive violence is something of a metaphor for her grief and sense of loss after losing her mother three years earlier. In this way, Happy Death Day mobilizes the conventions of horror in a fairly literal way to show how trauma and its aftermath can trap its sufferers. The film makes it clear that Tree, in some way, stopped living fully when her mother died; she became caught up in more mundane repetitions—engaging in meaningless reiterated rituals, not plunging into the rich progressive stream of life. Her literal death every day simply played out on the grand stage of horror what was going on in her life anyway.  And it laid bare how painful it was.

The repetitions that structure Happy Death Day also shows how those who experience violence (like Tree’s experience of her mother’s death) can work through the traumatic effects of violence by immersing themselves in the repetitious violence of the horror film. In a sense, Tree stands in for the viewer—working through violence by witnessing it (in a non-fatal way) over and over. Eren Orbey has written powerfully in The New Yorker about how horror movies served this function for her after her father was killed.

So Happy Death Day may not be Groundhog Day but it definitely stages some of the important things that horror film does: It shows how (repetitively) violent life can be—and its shows how we can work through deep emotion by watching fictional violence.

And, as I said at the beginning, none of this would have worked without the truly fantastic performance of Jessica Rothe. She made you care about her even when she was at her bitchiest, and she was able to juggle the film’s comedy (there are few horror films that made me laugh as much as this one) with the terror a young person inevitably feels at the prospect of being killed every day.

In short, I highly recommend Happy Death Day. Jason Blum has demonstrated here, as in his earlier films, that he believes profoundly in the importance and value of the horror film.

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