Slasher films are repetitive. The monster in a hockey mask stabs someone to death, the heroine flees, the monster stabs someone to death, the heroine flees, the heroine stabs the monster to death, the end. Substitute howl mask for hockey mask or bludgeon for knife, the formula stays the same. Kill, run, kill, run, KILL. Death comes with an almost restful inevitability. As you eviscerate today, so you will eviscerate tomorrow.
The numbing predictability of slashers means that the plot of the Jason Blum produced Happy Death Day is almost too on the nose. Vapid blonde sorority chick Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is murdered on her birthday, and forced to relive the day over and over until she finds her own killer. As the characters explicitly acknowledges, it's a Groundhog Day riff. But what's great about the film is that it isn't just about the repetition of the slasher. Rather, it embraces not just Groundhog Day's cute concept, but its rom com plot as well. Tree wakes up in the dorm room of sweet nerdy doofus Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) and discovers his unexpected good qualities over the course of her one repeated day. The result is a giddily preposterous rom com slasher, which celebrates the ways in which being stabbed to death over and over is a lot like falling in love over and over, and vice versa.
Rom coms are about sunshine and humor and happily ever after. Slashers are about blood and viscera and everyone being put to the scythe. You wouldn't think they'd have a whole lot in common. But in Happy Death Day, director Christopher B. Landon shows that formally, they're a natural fit.
Both slashers and rom coms follow a set formula with a preordained endpoint. In slashers, again, that formula is kill, run, kill, run, KILL. In rom coms, there's a slightly more complicated blueprint: meet cute, fall in love, experience setback, resolution and ending clinch.
In both genres, though, everyone watching already knows what the final scene is going to be. The plot is less about getting you to the end, and more about putting the end off until you've gotten through the runtime. How can you keep the main couple from just walking off into the sunset? How can you keep the heroine from just shooting the monster and being done with it? The film is all elaboration and pleasurable delay, running through preordained tricks to keep off a preordained conclusion.
Happy Death Day cheerfully wears its delaying tactics on the sleeve of the t-shirt Tree wakes up in every day. Eventually, tomorrow, Tree will kill the monster and get the guy. Once that happens, we're done, which is why we need to make today last and last and last.
The film also has fun with how similar rom com and slasher delaying tactics end up being. In one scene, Tree ends up in a frat dorm room with a guy wearing the disturbing baby-face school mascot mask donned by her murderer.
Slashers are filled with distracting almost-killers—people who seem like The Threat but end up being innocuous placeholders. Rom coms, for their part, are filled with alternate romantic rivals—potential romantic partners who keep the main guy and girl separated for just a little bit longer. Cheerfully clueless dorm room dude is a double distraction—a not-quite murderer for the slasher plot and a not-quite sexual partner for the rom com plot at one and the same time.
The most preposterous parallel, for better and worse, is the self-actualization. Rom coms like Groundhog Day generally have their leads discover depths within themselves, and become better people through love. Slashers have their final girl transform from helpless victim to avenging killer.
Happy Death Day, improbably but rather gloriously, has Tree follow both plot arcs simultaneously. Living the same day over and over runs her through rom com tropes and slasher tropes at the same time. And so, she realizes that she is an ugly person, whose emotional remoteness separates her from those she loves while simultaneously becoming a tough bad-ass killer inured to danger. She becomes more stereotypically feminized and more stereotypically masculinized at the same time.
The film is aware that it's playing two different gendered scripts at once. The final reveal is a gender reversal that channels Psycho, Friday the 13th, and other cross-dressing slashers past. In addition to fulfilling the trope, though, the gender switch is a wink to the audience. Guys in the audience are being asked to take the stereotypical position of girls and watch a rom com; girls are being asked to take the stereotypical audience position of boys and watch a slasher. Boys, girls, lovers, killers—everybody gets to be everybody, if there are enough hours in the day to practice.
Happy Death Day doesn't have Groundhog Day's sublime rhythms, and its plot veers into utter nonsense more than once. But its use of repetition to tie the rom com and the slasher together is exhilarating. Narratives end in love or death; everyone knows that. The fun is in how you get there. Formulaic art is supposed to be constricting. But what Happy Death Day realizes is that once you know where you'll end up tomorrow, you're free today.