[Jared] Happy Death Day: How to Become a Final Girl (in 3 Easy Steps!)

It’s February, and even though we’re already in the back half and Valentine’s Day has come and gone, I’m going to declare that it’s still relevant to reference the greatest February holiday movie of all time: Groundhog Day. (I feel fairly safe giving it that label. For one thing, it’s brilliant. For another, what other contenders even exist?) Everyone has seen Groundhog Day, I hope, but if you haven’t: Bill Murray plays narcissistic, misanthropic weatherman Phil Connors, who finds himself inexplicably trapped in a time loop in which he is forced to relive the same day over and over as he reluctantly covers the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney with a small crew from his home station in Pittsburgh. A cinematic masterpiece ensues.

I mention this because, if you love Groundhog Day and you’re a fan of slashers, you might also enjoy last year’s breezy genre mashup Happy Death Day, in which self-absorbed sorority mean girl Theresa “Tree” Gelbman is forced to relive her own gruesome murder (on her birthday) again and again as she tries to narrow down an impressively-lengthy list of suspects.

I’d point to three things in particular that make Groundhog Day so great: 1) Bill Murray is a legend. 2) The movie has an incredible understanding of precisely how to maintain its premise with a perfectly-balanced combination of not overexplaining anything while answering all of the most obvious questions by naturally allowing the character to test the limitations and rules of this world. 3) It richly rewards repeated viewings, with layers of humor and meaning and detail that can be discussed and appreciated from many different angles. Happy Death Day has at least part of one of those things going for it, in Jessica Rothe’s fantastic performance as Tree. She’s no Bill Murray, but she really threads the needle here with her great comic timing and expressiveness. Tree is an extremely unlikable character that we should hate for most of the movie, but we don’t, and Rothe makes what could have been a pretty clumsy transformation believable.

As for the rest, Happy Death Day wants to have its cake and eat it, too (pun intended, and if you haven’t seen the movie, that joke was hilarious, by the way). The movie is riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies. Some are more noticeable than others, and a few things that seem like plot holes at first are resolved in a final twist that’s just a bit too clever for its own good. But a lot of that has to do with a need to manipulate the plot through a series of set pieces that hit specific story beats. Happy Death Day traps itself into corners that Groundhog Day would never have had to worry about because of the genre tropes it is beholden to, and it almost pulls it off, but you can see the strings being pulled.

To give one salient example, there’s a point about midway through the movie where Tree ends up in the hospital because that’s where she needs to be for plot reasons, and her doctor tells her that the x-rays show she has suffered massive internal trauma and, in fact, should be dead (ha!). Tree mentions in one additional scene later that she’s getting weaker each time she comes back, and she may be running out of tries to get this right, but that never pays off and we don’t see her getting any weaker. If anything, the opposite seems to be true, and by the end of the movie this entire thread is dropped, coming off as clumsy attempt to raise the stakes.

Also, Groundhog Day is very deliberate in creating a situation where its protagonist is trapped, not just in one temporal space, but in one physical space. The story needs to happen in Punxsutawney, but that’s the last place Phil wants to be, but there’s never any confusion over why he doesn’t just leave. He can’t, and we know exactly why he can’t. Happy Death Day never explains, or even pauses to consider, why Tree doesn’t just . . . take off. Does anyone have more freedom than the average college student at a large university to just pack up and leave for any reason or no reason? And speaking of things that are lacking an explanation, what’s the deal with Tree’s roommate? How on earth did she get into that sorority, and why did she even want to?

But before I get too lost in the weeds, I guess what I’m saying is, Happy Death Day is a movie you could nitpick to pieces if that’s the sort of filmgoer you are, but I think you’d be doing yourself a disservice. What it loses in narrative coherence, it makes up in being light on its feet and rarely taking itself too seriously. Of course, as far as that goes, this movie also owes a significant debt to Scream and the entire subgenre of self-aware slashers that have followed in its wake over the last couple of decades. One the one hand, that makes it feel even less original, but on the other, it does occasionally use our knowledge of the genre to subvert expectations.

Tree’s character arc in Happy Death Day is broadly similar to Phil’s in Groundhog Day in that it is ultimately redemptive. What’s unique here is that Tree’s journey transforms her from one kind of stock character (the first-to-die promiscuous “scream queen”) to another (the virtuous “final girl”). And I particularly like that this happens without a big flashing arrow pointing at it, even as the movie winks its way through a whole truckload of other slasher cliches.

Ever since Carol Clover coined the term in 1992 (the year before Groundhog Day came out!) to describe what was already a well-worn trope, slashers have been increasingly self-conscious in their treatment of the role played by the final girl. This arguably peaked in 2015 with the release of both Final Girl, in which Abigail Breslin plays a character who has literally trained to be the final girl in a face-off with a group of serial killers who prey on women, and The Final Girls, in which Taissa Farmiga and her friends get sucked into a Friday the 13th ripoff called Camp Bloodbath, where she is reunited with her dead mother (Malin Akerman) who played one of the victims in the movie. Both of these films actively subvert and deconstruct the whole “final girl” idea, but neither of them (or any other movie I’m aware of) transforms it quite like Happy Death Day. (Sidenote: Nope, I haven’t seen every movie ever, so correct me in the comments!) Mild spoilers follow:

In the opening scene, Tree wakes up in a guy’s dorm room with her pants off and wearing one of his shirts, hungover after a night of heavy drinking. She does the Walk of Shame back to her sorority house, where we learn that she also made out with a guy who is seeing one of her sorority sisters the night before. And we find out a little later that she’s having an affair with one of her married professors. So, when she is killed that night (a fate she blunders into as cluelessly as any horror victim you can name), it feels like the typical slasher comeuppance that we would expect. (And, in fact, this does eventually turn out to be fundamentally connected to the sequence of events that keeps leading to her death.)

The second time through, when the first time just feels like an increasingly-extreme case of deja vu, things don’t change that much except that she avoids the place where she died the night before and actually makes it to the party. Once there, she ends up in the bedroom of the guy she made out with the night before, and again, it feels like business as usual when the killer shows up and murders them both. (There’s also a welcome nod here to the prevalence and toxicity of rape culture when a drunken frat boy stumbles in to see Tree on the bed, straddled by the killer. As she screams for help, he raises his beer in a toast, gives a congratulatory hoot, and exits.)

But already the movie is starting to backtrack and dig its protagonist out of the role she appears to be playing on day one. The scene in the bedroom doesn’t go anywhere, and she’s already on her way out when the killer confronts her. We also learn a few days later that nothing happened between her and the guy whose room she keeps waking up in every morning. He recognized she was way too wasted to give consent when she asked to come back to his room, and he let her stay because he was concerned for her safety. She also eventually takes it upon herself to end the affair with the professor, drop his class, and tell him off for cheating on his wife. Tree’s first step in becoming a final girl is to drop the party girl lifestyle that seems less and less like who she really is.

Tree’s hunt for her killer forces her to realize that there are a lot of people who might like to see her dead, and not because she’s such a wonderful human being. At the same time, we realize that the stereotype she seems to be on day one isn’t the real her, either. It’s a role she has allowed herself to fall into, at least in part to keep other people (and her own emotions) at arm’s length. Tree’s biggest turning point comes when she is on the verge of victory and realizes that if she wins now, someone else’s death will be permanent. This moment of self-sacrifice, of recognizing the needs of others and putting them before her own, is the next step in her transformation. Unlike abstinent virtue (no sex, no drugs, no rock ‘n roll), self-sacrifice isn’t a particularly prominent quality of the traditional slasher final girl, but it is a common element in redemptive story arcs.

At this point, the movie uses a whole raft of expectations to fake us out: It mimics the final day of Groundhog Day, and the traditional slasher climax, the typical conclusion of a redemptive story, and even the final scene of Sixteen Candles to make us believe that the story is over. Fortunately, it’s not, because as over-the-top as the final few twists may seem, the biggest plot holes would have been left gaping had the movie concluded at that point. Tree’s third step on the road to becoming a final girl is to see the cost to human relationships of the choices she has made. She can repent of these choices, and she can make better choices in the future, but there are still things that she has broken that can’t be fixed in a single day, even a day that she has had a dozen attempts to perfect.

Again, this is not a common element of the final girl character, but that’s the whole thing about the character trope, isn’t it? To the extent that a final girl experiences growth, it’s about her transformation into a hardened survivor. I’m not sure whether Tree’s repeated days make her the ultimate survivor or her many failures to gain the upper hand on her killer make her the ultimate victim. Either way, the final girl’s arc is going to look significantly different when she begins the movie as the character who dies first (and second, third, fourth, etc.).

The fact that Tree’s redemption is driven by a murderer killing her over and over again puts me in mind of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” These two stories have basically nothing in common except that both feature characters who are attacked by an escaped serial killer. The movie’s John Tombs is very one-dimensional, particularly in comparison to The Misfit’s cold, nihilistic fury, but The Misfit says something at the very end of the story that came back to me when I was thinking about the movie. The Grandmother in the story has just experienced a moment of clarity where, for the first time since we’ve met her, she steps outside of her own self-obsession and really sees another person and reaches out to them with no thought for herself, and in that moment The Misfit shoots her dead. And then he says, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

That statement gives me chills, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, but could we also say that about Tree in Happy Death Day? These are some deep and disturbing waters to swim in. It would be easy to mumble some empty aphorism about how the prospect of death forces people to prioritize and think about what’s truly important, but that’s certainly not what’s happening in “Good Man” and I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, either. Yes, the events of the movie do force Tree into some long overdue introspection, but it’s not the turn inward that ultimately matters; it’s the turn outward. The implicit message of the old-school slasher (“Make better choices so you won’t end up a victim.”) can only take her so far, and it doesn’t actually lead to anything that lasts. She goes from self-absorption to self-awareness, but that’s just the first step in seeing others as people and understanding how her own choices ripple out to impact them. Trying to save her life only leads to her losing it, but by giving up her life for others she finds it.

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