'Happy Death Day 2U' Is More About Grief Than Horror
Audiences are never around to see what it must be like to renegotiate your reality when everyone you loved has been killed, but Christopher Landon's latest teen horror uses that as a starting point.
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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Fear is normally the dominant emotion in slasher films, or at least the intended one. Since their inception, slashers have been built on the unshakeable concept of "someone is trying to kill you and you have to run."
As is always the way, this trope has become over-saturated and tired over time, with filmmakers having to find new ways to reinvigorate the slasher formula. So far, they've done this by satirizing the tropes themselves (Scream), fetishizing the genre's inherent violence (Saw, Hostel), or tapping into more psychological fuckery (It Follows, Hereditary). Films like A Quiet Place and Bird Box have gone to the other extreme by inverting this overstimulation, while Netflix’s recent forays into the genre have signaled a return to a more traditional, kitschy horror that has brought us the campy Babysitter and that film where Jake Gyllenhaal is haunted by some paintings. Slasher audiences are never around to see what it must be like to re-negotiate your reality when everyone you loved has been killed, and you nearly were too. Christopher Landon's latest, Happy Death Day 2U, however, might be the first slasher that actually centers on dealing with grief.
Despite being ostensibly about death, slasher films are concerned with the act of killing itself rather than the fallout. Most slashers don't stop to mourn every single death we’ve seen. Final Destination would run out of steam pretty quickly if the narrative halted to ruminate on the boy who got killed by a stray ladder to the head, or those girls who got toasted in a tanning bed. Grief is almost antithetical to the point of a slasher, and yet Happy Death Day 2U gets around this by shifting the focus from the killer onto the emotional fallout of its final girl.
Happy Death Day 2U is the sequel to 2017’s Happy Death Day, a slasher with a Groundhog Day premise as sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) gets murdered on the night of her birthday and enters a time-loop, reliving her death over and over again. It was a breath of fresh air when it first came out, gleefully utilizing its sci-fi twist to maximum effect, with Tree never once becoming the trite stereotype that she might have been in any other horror film.
Happy Death Day 2U goes further than its predecessor, questioning what it means to make a slasher sequel and what it means to be a final girl after the killer is caught and the credits roll. This time around, Landon ramps up the sci-fi and scales back the slashing as Tree is once again pulled into the first film’s time loop—only, this time into an alternate dimension where her mother (who, we learn in the first film, was murdered and shares Tree’s birthday) is still alive.
This discovery is the main emotional anchor of the film, elevating it from a zany slasher-sci-fi hybrid into something else altogether. Tree’s trauma and grief—still palpable, given the sequel takes place the day after the events of the first film—takes center stage at several points in the narrative as she struggles between staying with her mother or returning to her own universe, left alone to face her trauma. If the first film was an allegory for learning how to accept grief, its sequel questions what it takes to finally move on and start again.
When Tree finally sees her mother, she meets her grief literally head on at a birthday meal. It’s the emotional centerpiece of the entire film, as Tree appears to go through the stages of grief in a few seconds, before nearly collapsing into her mother’s arms with a smile on her face. For a film in a genre that has only ever really dealt with the wide spectrum of human emotion extraneously, Tree’s literal re-surfaced grief remains her biggest drive throughout the film. For once, she’s not fighting to stay alive, she’s fighting to stay with her mother and live the life she never had.
Happy Death Day 2U isn’t the only slasher released in the past year that provides a meta-commentary on the resilience of women in horror and the trauma the final girl is left with. 2018's Halloween reboot has a similar focus on the grief Lauri Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has endured after surviving the events of the first film, but unlike HDD2U—where Tree’s trauma is still fresh—Lauri has become hardened in the ensuing years, swapping grief for anger.
Lauri is the kind of final girl Tree could become one day; a Final Girl who has to live with the consequences of the choices she’s made, stuck in and in fear of the past. But Tree’s arc takes a U-turn in the final act of the film. Refusing to live in the past, she kills herself and sacrifices a possible future with her mother to return to her own universe.
Carol J. Clover—who coined the term "final girl" in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws—characterizes the final girl as "she who looks death in the face, but she alone finds the strength either to stay [away from] the killer long enough to be rescued or kill him herself." Happy Death Day 2U dares to look beyond this, dissecting Tree to find out what lies at the heart of this archetype. What it finds is a woman, resilient and broken in the face of death and trauma, with the drive to move on.
The Happy Death Day films are pushing slashers into new stylistic territories, but they’re also beginning to examine what it means to be a slasher film and to fetishize violence against women. Happy Death Day 2U’s meditation on sadness, loss, and grief offer up a self-portrait of its own genre and the repercussions of the violence we see onscreen. These feelings are often never shown or ratified in slashers because it counteracts the point of the films themselves: to scare us. But HDD2U does more than scare us; it offers a glimpse into a deeper, more affecting, future for the slasher.
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