Live and Let Empathize

Happy Death Day (2017) and Happy Death Day 2U (2019) together tell the story of bitchy sorority sister Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a slasher film trope with a difference. Shallow, flighty, and rude, Tree courts exactly the kind of cosmic justice that usually comes at the end of a POV killer’s favorite cutting implement, but surprise! She’s the heroine! That means Tree must live, although that doesn’t mean she won’t also die trying. A lot. As much It’s a Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day as Scream, Happy Death Day and its sequel make sure Tree gets something Mean Girls on film rarely get: character development. She may not start out as Final Girl material, but over the course of both films, Tree will defy genre as much as she defies death, emerging as one of the most engaging and relatable horror movie heroines in any universe.

Standard spoiler alert warning for both films here, although if any movie can be said to be spoiler-proof, one where you see the same sequence recut, rejigged, and reimagined over and over might just be it?

Every day in Happy Death Day (and the majority of its sequel) begins the same way: The clock tower on campus at Bayfield University starts tolling. Tree wakes up, half dressed, in a dorm room that is not her own. Someone plays a trombone badly somewhere nearby. Tree’s cell, with an obnoxious “It’s my birthday/I don’t have to pick up the phone” ringtone you will be singing for days, goes off with a call from her Dad, which Tree ignores.The visibly sweet, good guy the dorm room belongs to, Carter, tries to look after her. His roommate barrels into the room asking if he hit that “fine vagine.” Tree blows past the boys to take her walk of shame back to the sorority house, passing by a series of events that will play over and over like simple notes on a recorder — a Goth checks her out over his sunglasses, a girl asks her to sign a petition, a picnicking couple are doused by lawn sprinklers, a guy in a group of pledges getting hazed passes out on the campus lawn, etc. We find out that it’s her birthday, and that she has icy frenemy status with pretty much everyone she knows. Tree’s day and night will unwind along the same general outline over and over and over, but all paths terminate in Tree’s murder by someone wearing the weird baby mask of the university mascot.

The trick though is that Tree retains the memory of what happens each time she’s killed. So as she realizes she’s reliving the same day, she tries to relive it differently to avoid whatever killed her last time. Those different paths through Tree’s day and night, like a kaleidoscope, reveal different aspects of Tree’s life, from her strained relationship with her roommate to her secret affair with her professor to her unresolved issues following her mom’s death. There’s also a very Scream-like subplot with an escaped serial killer, a lurking jilted ex, and, thanks to her sorority’s surprise birthday party plans, a campus full of other suspects. Once we hit the territory of the sequel, we also get a fair amount of Weird Science/Back to the Future grade sci-fi-comedy and quantum theory.

As Tree fails to save herself from a horrible demise again and again, with each death making her subsequent reincarnation a little weaker, she becomes more desperate. But her constant momento mori also frees Tree to be more flexible, more adventurous, more herself. At the beginning, she’s rigidly locked into sorority life, sitting idly by while sorority queen bee Danielle bullies another of her sisters for what’s on her lunch tray. By the end, she’s standing up for that bullied sister and pouring her chocolate shake all over Danielle’s head. It’s interesting, too, that while living through the same day, unable to change its most essential detail, might encourage despairing fatalism, Tree actually becomes more invested in the little changes she can make for other people.

So, Tree can’t stop getting killed, but another thing she can’t stop is falling in love with Carter. Initially disgusted by him and his dorm room, with a strong whiff of class condescension, in some versions of her day, she ignores him, and in others she fruitlessly enlists his help, and in still others she finds herself being (temporarily) saved by him, but in almost every version, just as Tree is forced to confront parts of herself she has been avoiding, some aspect of this cute, genuinely good guy slides into focus. Her day may be in permanent flux, but the night before isn’t, the night before when, instead of taking advantage of a blackout drunk Tree as she expects, Carter took her home and put her to bed alone so nothing bad would happen to her. By the time she witnesses him selflessly sacrifice himself in a doomed attempt to save her, he’s only known her for about a day as usual, but Tree has been slowly falling in love with him for much, much longer. In every version of her life she lets him into, he tries to make it better, repaying her bitterness or dismissiveness with kindness. It’s a very strange, almost one-sided romance, but Tree learning to believe in love and good people again is essential to her journey from Mean Girl to Final Girl.

And before I go on, let me add that one of the things I love about these movies is it’s not just Tree who has depths uncovered. Everyone who starts this thing as a trope and lives to tell ends up in three dimensions,  with the possible exception of Carter, who’s just a soft angel from go, no growth necessary. Even characters who are more villainous, at least in some timelines, like Tree’s roommate Lori, have layers undergirding their murderousness. And so Carter’s dorky “fine vagine” one-joke roommate Ryan becomes a genius who ends up briefly stuck in his own time loop in the second film, but more impressively, shows up as a brainiac with a real sense of responsibility, a hero scientist. Controlling sorority sister Danielle, an easy, buffoon-like Mean Girl to contrast with Tree’s growth, gets her own arc in a parallel dimension that shows Tree what is possible for Danielle beyond fat-shaming and bullying her sisters. Tree’s stalker ex comes to terms with his homosexuality and ends up happy. Even Tree’s mom, who is dead and you can’t get tropier than Dead Mom, gets a hefty chunk of development in the sequel, helping Tree realize who she really is, too. There’s a great Ninth Doctor line the Happy Death Day movies remind me of: “Just this once, everybody lives!” Only with these films, it’s more like, “Just this once, everybody gets character development!”

Speaking of character development, to me, that is the real genius of these films — that is, beyond the genius of its meticulous game of Reality Jenga and the genius of a plot that can keep you guessing even when you’ve literally seen it all before. The old saw is “before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” For Tree, she’s forced to walk a mile in her own shoes. Her bloody, bloody shoes. Over and over. And that’s how she learns empathy. Along the way, particularly during the section where she’s actively trying to eliminate suspects in her own murder, she’s forced to look at the people around her with fresh eyes. While she does have some revelations about them, really what’s happening is Tree is being toured around by Clarence the angel to see the way she’s affecting the world around her. Only in this case, Clarence is the angel of death. Tree really doesn’t like what she sees, but changing into a better person is something that happens almost incidentally as she struggles to…not die another day. Becoming kinder and more conscientious is not the ticket out of the time loop, falling in love with Carter is not the ticket out of the time loop, confronting her grief is not the ticket out of the time loop. There’s no magic epiphany that will reset her doomsday clock. Yet all of those magic epiphanies will make her life worth all this dying. And of course, Jessica Rothe totally nails Tree’s gradual evolution with faultless timing and real Final Girl grit.

The original script, then called Half to Death, was written by famous comics scribe Scott Lobdell, and as an X-titles consumer in the 1990s, I’ve read a lot of his time-hopping, reality-warping, alternate-version characters doing things in the wrong dimension-based work. Happy Death Day was a natural story for him, and the core concept is a very comics-like exercise in creating drama by telling you a story and then telling it again, only changing something, or someone, and then doing it again and again, as the universe strains to reset to the original story. However, most of the endearing character stuff that made it to the screen in the first film, and definitely all of the second film, came from director-writer Christopher Landon’s attention to Tree’s character — adding the birthday plot and the romance with Carter, which soften the horror elements, but also give us a better, more believable foundation for Tree’s redemption.

Both films together do present an impressive catalog of death. Tree is stalked and knifed, poisoned, drowned, blown up, pretty much everything you can imagine, and that’s not even counting the montage where she’s killing herself off. I mean, she throws herself into a woodchipper. And yet, these films are genuinely life-affirming in a way that’s different from most horror, or even horror-comedies. Horror often shows you the path of survival or a reason to be thankful for what you have. That’s the lesson of, say, Saw. But that’s quite a different model than the path of living your best life, of being your best self, which is the point of these films. The culmination of Tree’s many deaths means killing off all the parts of her that were holding her back: her grief, her shallow lust, her aimless conformity. So, I suppose in a way Tree the Mean Girl does get killed off in this film, but it’s only so Tree the Final Girl can live.


Like Tree, Angela has never actually seen Groundhog Day.

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