Landon: Happy Death Day (2017)
No experience galvanises recent horror films quite like that of being shamed on social media, to the point where being “outed” – in whatever way – has eclipsed the terror of actually being murdered (or the two have come to mean much the same thing). In the process, the figure of the slasher has waned, or increasingly ramified only when inflected through this social media ecology. In fact, you might say that social media now fulfils the function held by the slasher in an older brand of horror, or that the slasher himself was an early and inchoate form of social media. On the one hand, the sheer proliferation of desire on social media often resembles the sheer proliferation of desire around the slasher, with both testifying to the absence of a sufficiently strong paternal or patriarchal presence to police desire in the way that American suburban life so often seems to demand. At the same time, however, social media, like the slasher, also periodically provides this paternal or patriarchal presence in a monstrous and intensified way, doubling down to shame and expunge anyone who doesn’t fit normative codes of behavior, desire and body image. If social media speaks to a more libidinised world than the original slasher, then it is also capable of policing that world even more brutally than the most vicious slasher, forcing protagonists (and especially teenagers) to mediate their desire through and around it even more ingeniously and precariously than an older generation negotiated traditional slashers.
As a result, negotiating social media in contemporary horror films also means negotiating the legacy of the slasher that lives on in and through social media, as well as the extent to which the slasher was always already a social medium ahead of his time. While some films – most notably Unfriended – have approached this bind by way of social media, no film has approached it by way of traditional slasher horror (or what initially appears to be traditional slasher horror) quite so dexterously as Happy Death Day, which will surely come to be seen as a definitive moment in the ongoing devolution of the slasher topos as a viable avenue for horror. In many ways, Happy Death Day plays as a spiritual sequel to Christopher B. Landon’s screenplay for Disturbia (and was actually first proposed in 2007), since both films position their protagonists between the forensic perusals of physical space once associated with the traditional slasher and the forensic perusals of virtual space now associated with digital horror. In the case of Disturbia, that takes the form of a digital remediation of Rear Window in which a young man on home arrest has to solve a crime with all the technology at his disposal while not being permitted to cross the perimeter of his property. In Happy Death Day, Scott Lobdell’s screenplay presents a kind of fusion of slasher horror and Groundhog Day in which Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on her birthday and is murdered by a masked killer the same night, only to wake up again the same morning, and then again, and then again, until she can figure out the identity of her slasher.
From the outset, that plays as a parodic deconstruction of the slasher film, with only one perfectly composed female body making up the enormous body count and diversity of deaths that the genre requires. With Tree dying every day, there’s also no need to decide whether we like her or not, as her disposability – and her increasing awareness of her disposability – eventually comes to constitute her charisma, as she fuses the peculiar valencies attached to the first and last people to die in a traditional slasher film. The fact that the entire day takes place around a toxic fraternity and sorority just makes the parody all the more pointed, not just it means that just about anybody could be a potential suspect, but because in its own way Happy Death Day mobilises this backdrop to produce one of the deftest critiques of college rape culture that has hit the big screen in the last decade, since as the day rotates over and over again it’s clear that everyone on campus is somehow complicit, and that Tree’s murder is somehow coterminous with the football celebrations and performative machismo that converge around the night when it happens. It’s no coincidence, in other words, that her birthday happens to fall on the evening before the big gridiron game, nor that her assailant is wearing the college mascot – an eerie baby face – since as the film proceeds the capacity of social media to police desire becomes more or less synonymous with the way in which desire is mediated through football, and the macho expectations that occur around football, across this insular college and community at large.
If Happy Death Day relishes these comic opportunities, then it is considerably less interested in milking this premise for horror. Going in, I was expecting a film that would become more and more forensically attuned to the small details of the day in question, allowing Tree and the audience to inhabit a time and place with more cinephilic texture each time around. To some extent, this process has become something of a standard trope in films and television series about finitude and thwarted futurity, with directors and screenwriters often borrowing the language of open-world sandbox gaming to suggest a universe that has been entirely mapped out in advance, and can now only be authentically experienced through attention to the small details and minutiae hidden along the way. Given how exhausted that trope has become – arguably reaching its pinnacle in the adaptation of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, where it drives an entire series – there’s something refreshing about the way in which Landon condenses this process to a single anarchic sequence that not only disperses the forensic scrutiny of space and time into the free-floating ebullience of music video, but deflects the question of Tree’s killer into the joy of acting without consequence and inhabiting a space free from the pitfalls of social media.
It’s here that the film really comes into its own, gravitating towards comedy as the process of continually reliving the day of her death ends up transforming Tree for the better. While the slasher typically thrives on disposable teenage bodies, here it’s the teenager herself who thrives on her own disposability, reliving her birthday so many times that she eventually exhausts every way in which it might conceivably shame, humiliate or “out” her. In the most profound sense, this is both her death day and her birthday, as she becomes both more and less aware of being scrutinised – more aware of the abstract gaze of the killer, to be sure, but in a way that also allows her to discard all her inhibition with respect any one person who might turn out to be behind the mask. In the paradox that drives the film, it turns out that teenage life is indeed as claustrophobic as living the same day over and over again, or having the same day mediated in slightly different ways, but only until you accept that this is really all there is to it, and live each day as if it is both your birthday and your death day: “When you live the same day over and over, you start to figure out who you are.” In a wonderful twist, defeating social media requires much the same strategy as defeating the slasher – actively encouraging and relishing in the prospect of total and exhaustive scrutiny – and while that doesn’t exactly make Tree “happier,” it does relax and energise her in the same breath, making her more aware of her body, and the thrill of being embodied, even if it does come at some bodily cost as well, with each fresh morning bringing a fresh wound.
If Happy Death Day is a parody of slasher films, then, it is more specifically a parody of the disembodied scrutiny of time and space that allows slasher audiences to disregard the toll taken upon the bodies proliferating upon the screen before them. For, unlike 11/12/63, there’s no real fascination here with the minute spatial discrepancies between each day, nor any “auteurist” effort to converge the spatial scheme of the film with that of open-world gaming. In fact, part of the pleasure of Happy Death Day is that it never takes its premise quite seriously enough to elaborate it in any real detail, since it remains unclear whether the killer is following and observing Tree all day, or whether the killer just happens to gravitate towards her in whatever version of the day they happen to inhabit at any one time. More philosophically, it’s unclear whether the killer is also aware of experiencing the day on a time loop, since some scenes suggest that he (or she) is consciously building upon what has happened the “previous” day, while others suggest that this day feels as fresh to him (or her) as it does to the other characters who think they are experiencing it for the first time.
In other words, Landon and Lobdell preclude us parsing the precise differences from one day to the next, let alone synthesising each day into a wider spatial or temporal scheme, instead envisaging Tree’s birthday as a sustained dolly zoom whose coordinates emerge and recede in the same breath. No surprise, then, that the moment at which Tree finally manages to take control of the day happens by way of a homage to the belltower sequence in Vertigo – in this case, the college belltower that wakes her up every morning. This is where she first realises that if she deliberately chooses to die she might have a better chance of surviving the next day – a realisation that brings her closer than ever before to the moment of waking, as she jumps from the tower as it is chiming and then wakes up the next morning to what initially appears to be the same peal of bells. Yet the legacy of Vertigo also intensify Landon’s dolly zooms at this very moment and through this very connective tissue, as if to suggest a temporal continuity that recedes even further as Tree finally approaches it.
This moment is the first of several twists throughout the film (a considerable achievement, given that the premise already is the twist) in its suggestion that simply surviving, or eluding the slasher, is not going to be enough to restore regular spatiality and temporality, if only because it is only through the figure of the slasher that spatiality and temporality is regulated in the first place. In order to survive the day, Tree therefore has to come to some kind of reckoning with the figure of the slasher himself, and to reappropriate that figure in a way that can be empowering for her. She receives that opportunity when, in a second, subsidiary twist, it turns out that the killer isn’t someone she knows after all, but a traditional serial killer who is being held in the local hospital under police scrutiny. Far from being his first and only victim, Tree turns out to be his sixth or seventh, even if the accumulated weight of that body count also seems to be playing out upon her own body as well, which grows more bruised and broken by the “day.” Instead of the killer using her to fulfil some personal grudge, we now have a situation in which Tree uses the killer (who is never presented as anything other than a stock figure) to reset her own life, and restore balance to her own personality, as she spends day after day figuring out the exact right way to kill him in order to ensure she – and everyone else – end up with the best day possible.
In that gesture lies the parodic kernel of the film, as well as its prescience that the paternal and patriarchal authority that once animated slasher horror has waned as a source of teenage anxiety – or at least only exists insofar as it is deflected into the more amorphous paternal and patriarchal potentiality of social media. While every day might start with a phone call from Tree’s father – a call she never takes – that conspicuous paternal absence fails to generate the same slasher attachment as would occur in a horror film. When it inevitably comes, their eventual reconciliation turns out to be quite amiable, and only reiterates the impotence of the slasher surrogate that would once have revolved around this displaced fatherly authority. Conversely, the slasher’s own phallic potentiality is either infantilised (the baby mask quickly becomes comic) or queered, most notably by way of Tree’s jock boyfriend Tim, who at first glance seems to be the best contender for this penetrative slasher presence, but who repeated iterations of her death day reveal to be gay.
In its comic timing and panache, this revelation is perhaps the key moment of the film, replaying the primal fear of being “outed” on social media as farce, and suggesting that being outed ceases to be scary when it is happening all the time, or when you are aware of it happening all the time. In fact, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that Happy Death Day presents social media as constituted by a twin drive towards closeting and outing that can be mobilised for the better as soon as individuals embrace outing as the premise of social media in the first place. Certainly, the experience of continually mediating her day means that this once shocking revelation – that her potential boyfriend is gay! – is as banal to Tree as any other, something to be shrugged off in the same way as any other incidental piece of information that she gathers with each new iteration of her birthday. If the premise of Happy Death Day recalls Landon’s work on Disturbia, then this rehabilitation of social media as a space that has already been “outed” often reminded me of his work on the later Paranormal Activity franchise – not merely in the way in which it dissociates the presence of digital media from actual digital media devices, but in its prescience for the way in which queer orientations to the world are already inherent in the fact and address of social media itself if we know how to take advantage of them (much as they were already inherent in the preposterous phallic presence of the original slasher, whose policing of teenage desire was nearly always psychologised by way of the queered desires of his own suburban childhood).
Whereas Happy Death Day may initially promise a kind of apotheosis of slasher horror’s forensic fixations with the rationalization and regimentation of time and space, then, it actually turns out to be quite irreverent about all that, with the surprise of that irreverence forming much of its comic timing and signature. If it’s unclear whether Tree and her killer are inhabiting the same day in the same way, then that’s because they are indeed operating across different planes of horror, as the film poses the question of how to escape both slasher and social media horror, or the slasher inherent in social media. By the end, that means bending Happy Death Day away from horror altogether, as its buoyant energy congeals into something of a romantic comedy for the millennial precariat, with the penultimate scene following Tree and her new boyfriend Carter as they sit down to a homage to Sixteen Candles: “What are you going to wish for?” “Tomorrow…Tomorrow’s good enough for me.” Yet in one final twist, this romcom conclusion doesn’t guarantee a new day either, with Tree waking up once again on her birthday to quickly realise that the serial killer has been something of a foil, and that the person responsible for all her different deaths over these countless days has actually been her roommate and closest confidant.
While Tree could never have discovered her roommate without going through the figure of the slasher, it’s also true that she could have never discovered the slasher without going through the figure of this roommate, who has mediated every single iteration of the day she has experienced so far. For, whatever strange tangents she might take, every single day has involved one common denominator – coming home, receiving a cupcake from her roommate, and then throwing the cupcake out, before leaving the dorm to try and take control of the evening that initially seems to be the most critical part of this escalating time loop. As it turns out, however, this cupcake was poisoned all along, forcing Tree’s roommate to resort to ever more ingenious and inventive ways of disposing of her when this initial plan fell through. If we start by trying to discern the killer’s presence across the different iterations of the day, and proceed to perceiving the killer as a stock figure that Tree uses to remake the day in her own image, then the killer is finally this moment at which the day is remediated in the first place, as this cusp between coming home and going out turns out to be more crucial to the syntax of the film than that between being murdered and waking up.
In the final devolution of the film’s slasher sensibility, then, Tree is confronted with something like the motor engine of social media, as the surveillance of the traditional slasher is remediated as the sousveillance of her roommate before her very eyes. While she has been trying to ward off scrutiny from without, the scrutiny has actually been coming from within her most private space and self, something she can nevertheless only realise once she has virtually exhausted any sense of the private by rotating through every single way in which her birthday could expose, disclose and destroy her. Among other things, that now explains the film’s strange spatial scheme, and especially its sense that the slasher needs to find ingenious ways to approach Tree with each new day but is somehow always already with her in every space as well. With the slasher already always present, and already mediating every space, all Tree can do in this final scene is to relinquish the private subjectivity that makes that mediation possible, identifying with her own proliferating identities to destroy the slasher with a burst of ebullience that seems to fragment and splinter her as much as it does her target, resulting in a comically peremptory ending in which she wakes up the next morning only to act as if she is still living her birthday again.
Far from rediscovering herself, it’s only in refusing to commit to a private self – a self capable of being mediated in the first place – that Tree finally achieves liberation, utterly discarding or utterly subsuming herself into social media, depending upon how you look at it. In either case, the effect is not unlike the moment in a slasher film in which the heroine finally dons the killer’s mask and inhabits him from the inside, with Landon suggesting that the best way for Tree to maintain her power is now to voluntarily act as if she is living her birthday over and over again, even if there is no metaphysical necessity to do so. In a world in which the horrors of social media seem to be omnipresent, Happy Death Day finally suggests that the only way to live today is to assume that you will be outed, shamed and “disclosed” tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after – and in that curious gesture lies its deft dissociation from both its slasher and social media horror heritages in the name of something more emergent, more precarious, and more difficult to define by genre alone.
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