Cinema has been around for over a century. It took a while for it to figure itself out as an art form, which led to the creation of genres, i.e. socially agreed-upon conventions that apply to a kind of film. Once genres were defined, artists were given the opportunity to create and put their ideas on the screen, and this creativity resulted in something called subgenre. While genre has a bit more of an everlasting power due to its broad scope, subgenres tend to feel tired after a while. Superhero films are mostly a subgenre of action and science fiction. Romantic comedies are a subgenre of comedies. And slasher films, which are what we’re talking about here, are a subgenre of horror.
For many years, it’s felt like slasher films were a lost art form. A relic of a time past where audiences were perfectly okay with watching an immediately predictable formula play out on screen. That’s why, in the original continuities, we got 10 entries in the “Friday the 13th” franchise, 8 in “Halloween”, and 7 in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (and countless others). All of these movies in the franchise are essentially similar. The innovation came from having more outlandish villains and situations, but the rules remained the same.
Movies like “Scream”, which were mostly parodies of the horror classics of old, kept the slasher subgenre alive for a few years. Hollywood then tried the “unexpected” as a narrative tool for a few years in slasher films, to mixed results. These “unexpected” films were mostly remakes of the movies of the past but with a twist on the established rules while still following the same formula. So, yeah, different things were happening, but there wasn’t really a lot of creativity. Thus, the recently-revived slasher subgenre genre was seemingly dying again.
But then enter “Happy Deathday” (2017), a slasher film in every sense of the word that was made with a fresh new perspective. It’s a parody that’s also playing off the “relive the same day” trope made famous by films like “Groundhog Day”, but with several new and clever twists. In other words, the film keeps many subgenre conventions (e.g. the equivalent of a “final girl” character), but with greater range that appeals more to modern audiences and their sensibilities.
So, in sum, “Happy Deathday” was better at bringing things back to life than even Melisandre herself.
A lot of what makes “Happy Deathday” work so well is its focus on character and comedy over gore or shock value. And due to this focus, they made what is perhaps the most important decision in the whole film: they cast the amazingly talented Jessica Rothe as Tree Gelbman, the heart and soul of the film in every possible way. Sure, there’s a killer in a creepy baby mask running around, and we need to figure out who it is, but Rothe’s charismatic performance is what makes the movie work from start to finish. While still clever and innovative within the slasher subgenre, the film would have never worked as well without Rothe. She was true finding and a marvel to watch on screen.
Being just as creative as its predecessor, “Happy Deathday 2U” (released in 2019) expands on the universe as sequels should, but it mostly works because it isn’t afraid to look and feel totally different from its predecessor. In many ways, the sequel is more of a science fiction piece over horror, but it keeps the basic elements that worked in its predecessor and expands of them. Rothe comes back and continues to be the best part of the whole thing. In fact, the film somewhat struggles within the first few minutes when she’s not front and center of the narrative. As soon as she takes over, however, it really kicks off and never lets go of the silly fun.
I had inexplicably missed these two films when they first came out in theaters, but I was able to catch up this week during this seemingly never-ending quarantine. It was a timely first-time watch, too, because we’re coming up on socially-distanced Halloween – which is bound to be less fun than other years – and two lighthearted comedies that mix up horror and slashers might be exactly what we need to get through this. They worked really well for me, and I’m sure they’ll do the same for you, whether it is upon first watch or upon rewatch.
Most importantly, “Happy Deathday” and its sequel should be taken as a lesson of how to keep dying subgenres alive. They are not far from being “Halloween with time travel”, but they still manage to find new and inventive ways to steer away from the established conventions, make the films relevant to modern audiences, and (perhaps most importantly) still have enough juice for fans of slasher films to enjoy. This is a rare find these days, and something our current pop culture seriously needs more of.
So, hats off to the “Happy Deathday” franchise, and a big thanks for bringing in a new twist to one of my favorite genres. If there’s a third film coming, I’ll be the first one in the theater to see it.