The Back to the Future inspired time travel horror series that you never knew you wanted! That last sentence is possibly the most truthful single sentence I have written on these blog pages, the movie(s) in question today is Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U and if, like me, you have dismissed these films without ever having watched them then prepare to think on and strap yourself in for one of the most entertaining horror/thriller stories of recent years.
The premise of the original Happy Death Day is more Groundhog Day than Back to the Future at this point in that main character Theresa Gelbman is stuck reliving the same day over and over again. The day that Theresa (nicknamed Tree) is forced to relive multiple times is her birthday, which sounds like it should be amazing but obviously, as this is a horror film, it is a waking nightmare for her. The problem is that after waking up drunk in a classmates dorm room doing the ‘walk of shame’ back to her own Sorority house, she then is shown getting ready for her birthday party and as she makes her way there is brutally murdered by somebody wearing a black hoodie and a baby mask which is her College’s Basketball mascot. Then she wakes up!
In true Groundhog Day style, Tree relives the day with different outcomes countless times until she figures out who it is that is trying to kill her and why. She interacts differently with all of the different characters in different ways too in order to make sense of her nonsensical new world and ultimately to work out who the killer is and why they are trying to kill her. I know that to describe the movie in this way does it a disservice because it makes it sound like a pure rip off and while it does clearly riff off Groundhog Day for it’s main premise it is actually a very smart and very well made slasher/thriller movie that I can’t recommend enough. It is a film that dares to be different and isn’t afraid to have a sense of humour about it that never goes over the top and will keep you guessing the whole time.
The film itself has some nice touches to it as well such as highlighting the relationship between Tree and her Dad whom she begins the movie by ignoring his phone calls and generally blocking him out of her life following the death of her Mother. It is genuinely heart warming to see her re-evaluate her relationship with him as she keeps reliving the day and being forced to ignore the same phone call every single day until she actually begins to try and work out why she is ignoring him and why the two don’t have a close relationship. The fact that this can happen within the confines of a horror movie shows that characterisation need not be sacrificed at the expense of the body count.
Tree also gets to re-evaluate the way that she treats others at college which particularly changes her character as she starts the movie as a typically solipsistic Sorority girl, more obsessed with being popular and on trend but finishes the movie as a different, much more likeable character following her forced deja vu. At the beginning of the film she is shown as being dismissive any studious, geeky types that may be around as well as even her own Dorm-mates whom she appears to have little time for except if she feels they can aid her in climbing the social ladder. As fun as a lot of the scenes in the movie are, you kind of feel that this is the real story arc here and by the time you enter the final half hour with the final ‘confrontations’ (that’s as much of a spoiler as I will give here!) you really root for her to pull through and somehow end the time loop.
It is Happy Death Day 2 U where the Back to the Future parallels and references really begin and the movie intentionally embraces this too which makes for some great moments but we will come to that in a second. To give a brief overview of this sequel – it kicks off focussed on Ryan, the character that we kept seeing walking in on Carter and Tree in the original movie and promptly gets kicked out of the room every time. He has much more of a prominent role this time which is quite a cool feature of this second film and is a good way to introduce a ‘new character’.
College student Ryan wakes up in his car on Tuesday, September 19. Returning to his dorm room, he walks in on his roommate Carter and Tree. He resumes work on an experimental quantum reactor with fellow students Samar and Dre. After Bronson, the school dean, shuts down the project for triggering several power outages, Ryan is murdered by someone dressed as Babyface, and wakes up again on Tuesday the 19th. Tree explains her experience reliving the previous day and she and Carter agree to help Ryan. They learn the reactor was responsible for creating the loop. The new Babyface tracks Ryan down, but Tree unmasks him to reveal another Ryan. The second Ryan warns that the original must die for the loop to close. Terrified, Ryan activates the reactor, releasing a powerful energy pulse that knocks everyone unconscious.
Now, anybody that struggles with time travels movies and tv series (and believe me, there are plenty out there!) may suffer a little bit with some of the storyline concepts that come up here in that we get quite a lot of multiverse theory while Ryan attempts to explain to Tree why certain events and people are different after she has been knocked unconscious by the Quantum Reactor (nicknamed Sissy). Without giving too much away, in this alternate reality, the killer from the original film is no longer the killer in this timeline and Carter is actually in a relationship with Danielle, the horrible Sorority pack leader from the first film. And while you do get a lot of complicated sounding theories about why this might have happened, if you are confused, please just refer to Doc Brown’s diagram in Back to the Future 2 which will pretty much explain to you what is going on here!
Speaking of Back to the Future, the films (especially part 2) get referenced pretty early on in Happy Death Day 2 U’s dialogue and there are plenty of references to throughout from then on, even down to a version of Alan Silvestri’s ‘twinkly’ incidental music which appears throughout the Back to the Future trilogy. I won’t give all of the BTTF2 references away but I will let you know my favourite one is where a woodchipper is prominently featured in a shot with the logo of the gardening firm that operates it reading, “Biff’s Gardening Services”. The fact that the Back to the Future franchise is amongst my favourite movies of all time certainly helps endear Happy Death Day 2 U to me – I am a sucker for a bit of time travel drama though!
Although the original movie deals with Tree’s relationships with both her Father and her fellow students, the second film deals with her relationship with her Mother. Now, in the original movie we learn that her Mother is dead and this was implied as part of the reason that she and her Father did not have a great relationship. Here, we see Tree and her Father enjoying a close relationship but when Tree goes to meet him at the same restaurant that she was always meeting him at in the original film. There is one difference though, her Dad tells her they are waiting for one more lunch guest and then, through the door comes – Tree’s Mother! In this timeline, Tree’s Mother is alive and we see her struggle with the idea of trying to remain in this alternate reality in order to stay with her Mom. Anybody who has lost a parent can surely relate to this part of the movie as it is tenderly done and verges on having a few tearjerker moments especially the first time that she lays eyes on her previously dead Mother. These moments show that there is plenty of time within horror movies for character development and well written scenes that don’t just serve to get you to the next fright. I would even go as far as to say that these films may be the best written horror films since Wes Craven was gracing the silver screens but that is just my opinion.
The films have a little bit of everything, suspense, some jump scares with the Babyface killer, humour – but not too much as to be ridiculous, action and general geekery. It has a little bit of everything which is rare for a movie these days to have and to pull off quite so well as this. So, to Double Back (see what I did with the Back to the Future reference there?!) to the beginning of the article, if you have dismissed either or both of these films based on the admittedly slightly rubbish sounding title, then you need to rectify this right now and see what I’m talking about here. Happy Death Day is currently on Netflix and Happy Death Day 2 U is currently showing on Sky Cinema in the UK. Enjoy and thank me later!