“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
A Warning: This column contains plot spoilers for both HAPPY DEATH DAY and HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U.
Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra. Ilsa and Rick. Tree and Carter. Tragic love stories come in all shapes and sizes, and the newest one to enter Western culture comes from a very unlikely direction: Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day and its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U. The slasher comedies, which apply a Groundhog Day time loop to a slasher whodunit featuring a killer in a baby mask, are fun horror romps for the holding-hands-and-a-bucket-of-popcorn set – which probably explains that Valentine’s Day release slot for the sequel. But, as there tends to be with the movies we cover here, there’s a lot more to it than that.
The Happy Death Day franchise shares a lot of DNA with the greatest doomed love stories of our time. The ending might not be as grim as Romeo and Juliet’s pile of corpses or Casablanca’s tragic airfield farewell, but the happy endings of the Happy Death Days might just be a little more bittersweet than one is led to believe.
Here’s the sitch: When Tree Gelbman (the effervescent Jessica Rothe) is forced to repeat the day of her death over and over again, she begins every morning with the goofy but sweet Carter (Israel Broussard), who took care of her drunk ass the night before and, in certain timelines, helps her figure out how she might be able to escape the loop. Over the course of many repeats, she discovers the identity of the killer, makes a complete Ebeneezer Scrooge personality
The second film sends Tree to that same day in an alternate dimension – one in which Carter has a girlfriend and Tree’s mother is still alive. She must make a choice: does she remain in this timeline and spend time with a mother she essentially stole from another version of herself, or does she make a commitment to Carter and continue the work she’s done improving her life in the original timeline?
The plot really isn’t as complicated as I’m making it sound, but the romance absolutely is. You see, when she finally does reunite with Carter, someone she has literally sacrificed her life for on multiple occasions, she’s entering a relationship with somebody who has known her for a maximum of about 48 hours, at least as far as he’s aware. She’s spent weeks falling for, being heartbroken by, and making moves on this boy who remembers absolutely none of it, having had his memories reset at the beginning of every single timeline.
Sure, they are happy and in a relationship at the end of the movie, but there’s a key line in the sequel disguised as a cutesy romantic moment. Somebody describes Tree as Carter’s “girlfriend” and he balks at the term, asking her if that’s what she is. She immediately agrees with a shy smile and it’s all very cute, but it also highlights how little Carter has been involved with the inception of their relationship. At least, this version of Carter.
There’s an inherent imbalance to their relationship, because her feelings are born out of days and weeks of time spent together that he will never be able to recall, and even though she insists it happened, will find it impossible to prove. As far as he’s concerned, the times she sacrificed her life for his or kissed him in the quad or literally made the choice to leave an entire dimension behind to be with him are about as real as fairy tales.
This is just like the tragedy of a relationship like that in The Notebook, where illness causes one partner to forget their past, only in this case that past literally never happened. And while they will certainly be able to build a solid relationship out of what they have together, most of the fundamental building blocks of that relationship are completely absent from Carter’s mind. That’s a lot of pressure to be put under, and it’s certainly not Tree’s fault, but there’s going to be a lot of catching up to do before he could possibly dream of matching the depth of feeling she has for him. I wish all the best for Tree and Carter, but their love comes with a deep well of sorrow that won’t vanish overnight.
But isn’t unrequited love the cornerstone of all the best tragic romances? This one might come in a totally different shape than the ones you’re used to, but it’s not Happy Death Day if you get exactly what you might expect without a little twist. All I ask is that when the inevitable Happy Death Day 3 rolls around, you give that angle a little thought and embrace the full spectrum of feelings it makes possible. Happy belated Valentine’s Day to you all!
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror franchises from tip to tail! He also produces the LGBTQ horror podcast Attack of the Queerwolf! on the Blumhouse Podcast Network.