How Christopher Landon Is Reinventing The Slasher Movie

Horror spends so much time looking back, but one filmmaker is pushing the genre forward.

By Ciara Moloney · @_ciaramoloney · June 17, 2021, 9:05 AM PDT
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Jessica Rothe in HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017)

Slasher movies occupy an unusual position within horror, and within film in general. As a genre, its scope is extremely narrow, yet its formula is endlessly replicable: somebody stabs a bunch of teenagers, culminating in a face-off between the killer and the final girl. Laurie Strode fended off Michael Myers and launched a thousand imitators.

The slasher movie’s peak, both creatively and in popularity, is also when it was most reviled critically. In the 1970s and 1980s, slasher movies were considered the bottom of the barrel, barely inching out pornography in artistic merit (and second only to pornography in VHS rentals). Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were so disgusted by the original Friday the 13th that they told their viewers to write letters of complaint to its producers and star Betsy Palmer. It’s only in the subsequent decades that slashers have been taken seriously enough to recognize that great slasher movies are great movies, period. Yet simultaneously, the genre has gone into decline.

In his book Anatomy of the Slasher Film, Sotiris Petridis outlines three main periods in the genre’s history. There’s the classical period, from 1974 – when Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were released – through the 1980s, followed by the self-referential cycle of the 1990s, with films like New Nightmare and Scream satirically pointing out and playing with genre tropes. Then there’s what Petridis calls the “neoslasher” cycle from 2000 to 2013: there were original slashers produced in this period, like Cabin in the Woods or the Final Destination series, but the genre was dominated by reboots and remakes of older movies.

In general, the slasher movie has remained entranced by its own past glories. Sometimes that’s meant satirical metacinema pulling apart the genre’s tropes (Scream), and sometimes that’s nostalgic recreation and homage (The House of the Devil), and sometimes that’s soulless remakes trying to cash on the name recognition of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street. Some of these movies are masterpieces, some of them suck. But since the slasher boom of the 1980s ended, all signs have still pointed back there, one way or another.

This is what makes writer-director Christopher Landon’s recent slate of slashers – 2017's Happy Death Day, its 2019 sequel Happy Death Day 2U, and last year's Freaky – so exciting. Instead of looking back, these films push the slasher forward in new directions. Each of these movies show a clear knowledge of and love for the genre, but aren’t weighed down by that history. They reinvent the slasher movie for Generation Z.

Happy Death Day stars Jessica Rothe as Theresa "Tree" Gelbman, a college student who gets stuck in a Groundhog Day-style time loop. She wakes up in a stranger’s bed on the morning of her birthday, Monday the 18th, and that night, she’s murdered by a masked assailant – only to wake up again on her birthday, Monday the 18th. She relives the same day over and over, getting killed every time.

Tree uses the time loop to solve her own murder. There are many suspects. At the start of Happy Death Day, Tree is a horrible person with a long list of enemies. A lot of recent riffs on the Groundhog Day formula tend to low-ball the protagonist’s badness because they’re afraid of alienating the audience, but Happy Death Day goes all in. Tree is cruel, judgmental and self-centered. She humiliates her sorority sister for eating too many calories at lunch. She’s sleeping with her married professor. She hooks up with her best friend’s crush and ignores her father’s phone calls. She is, as John Squires writes for Bloody-Disgusting, “the sort of character who would, in any other slasher movie, be killed off before the final act.”

In Men, Women and Chain Saws, Carol J. Clover coined “final girl” to describe the survivor of the group of teenagers the slasher kills and who has a final confrontation with the villain at the film’s climax. Clover’s final girl is morally superior and sexually pure, while her sexually active, drug-taking friends get picked off one by one. But Happy Death Day upends this by having both roles exist in the same person. The film’s very framing device underlines that Tree isn’t the typical virginal slasher protagonist: she wakes up over and over again in a boy’s bed after a night of drunken partying. Tree is both the victim and the survivor. She’s a final girl who dies and comes back for more.

“Every slasher film opens up with the mean girl getting killed and the good girl living till the end,” Happy Death Day screenwriter Scott Lobdell said in an interview with Thrillist. “And I thought, How can I make the mean girl and the good girl the same person?'"

In classic slasher movies, as Rhiannon McKechnie notes in With Terror In Their Hearts, the killer is often reactivated by a commemoration or anniversary that reinforces a trauma. In Halloween, that date marks the anniversary of Michael Myers’ first killing; Friday the 13th marks Jason Voorhees’ birthday; Black Christmas and April Fool’s Day are based around annual customs associated with the calendar date. But Happy Death Day is based around an anniversary that reinforces a trauma not for the killer, but for Tree: her birthday has been painful since the death of her mother, with whom she shared a birthday. She avoids her father’s calls and blows off dinner with him because it hurts to chit-chat as if they’re not both thinking about that gaping absence. The time loop traps her in a day that she avoids, forcing her to confront and deal with her grief. The scene where she finally talks to her dad about how much she misses her mom is genuinely moving, and always catches me off-guard.

The major slasher series are focused on the villain. The teenagers come and go, but the killer remains a constant: when they haven’t, like the copycat killer in Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning or the totally standalone story of Halloween III, it’s usually provoked fan backlash. But in Happy Death Day, the killer is almost incidental. The Bayfield Babyface Killer – their mask is the college mascot, the Bayfield Baby – is the least interesting thing in the movie, and the succession of red herrings and reveals is made entertaining primarily through a combination of Rothe’s effortlessly charismatic performance and the filmmaking: a montage of Tree eliminating suspects is irresistibly fun. Even moreso than Neve Campbell as Sidney in the Scream movies, Tree is the film’s focus. Her smarts, her grief and, ultimately, her growth drive the narrative.

As she wakes up over and over again in the same stranger’s bed, he quickly stops being a stranger: he’s Carter (Israel Broussard), a cute, geeky college student with They Live and Mystery Science Theater 3000 posters in his dorm. On the first loop, Tree is angry and embarrassed when he tries to talk to her in front of her sorority sisters, but eventually, she starts to like and trust him. On some loops, she explains what’s happening, and even though he’s not totally sure if she’s crazy, he takes her seriously and tries to help. In one loop, Carter dies trying to save her, and Tree purposefully kills herself instead of taking out the killer to make sure the day resets. Carter doesn’t remember any of it, but slowly, surely, Tree falls in love.

In one loop, Tree collapses and is taken to the hospital. The results of her scans don’t make sense: she has scar tissue from multiple major traumatic injuries, and should be dead. This gives the narrative an urgency that the Babyface Killer alone can’t sustain: if Tree can’t close the time loop soon, she will die permanently.

Happy Death Day has very little in terms of gore and inventive kills, partially because of the nature of its structure – when Tree dies, the loop hard-resets, so the audience doesn’t see much –and partially because it’s just not especially interested in being the scariest film in the world. It’s empathically a slasher film – from the way Landon shoots the stabbings to Rothe’s big, scream queen eyes – but it has different ambitions.

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This is even more true when it comes to the sequel, Happy Death Day 2U. The classic slasher sequels – even great ones, like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors or Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter – tend to retread the beats of the original. Happy Death Day 2U, in contrast, is a wildly inventive and frequently wacky sci-fi comedy. Like the first film, it melds genres with gleeful abandon, but this time, it throws alternate universes into the mix. Carter references Back to the Future II, just like he compared Tree’s situation to Groundhog Day in the first movie. (Tree has seen neither.)

Happy Death Day 2U opens on Carter’s roommate, Ryan (Phi Vu), waking up in his car. Initially it seems like the audience is seeing Tree’s birthday again from a new perspective: there’s the same activist asking for petition signatures outside the building, the same guy practicing his trumpet and another guy screaming for him to shut up. But when he gets to the dorm room, it becomes clear that it’s actually the day after Happy Death Day, Tuesday the 19th. It’s a neat bait-and-switch, setting up that all the development of the first film is going to be thrown out to re-do the same basic story, and then pulling the rug out. Carter and Tree are kissing on his bed, and Carter shoos Ryan away right before Ryan gets a call about the physics project he’s working on with his friends.

That project is an experimental quantum reactor nicknamed Sissy, which is designed to slow down time. The cause of the rolling blackouts in the first film, Sissy recorded an unexplained spike in activity in the middle of last night. Before they can figure out what happened, the dean orders the machine to be shut down and removed. And before they can get it back, Ryan gets murdered by a killer in a babyface mask. He wakes up in his car, on Tuesday the 19th.

When Ryan freaks out to Tree and Carter, they piece together what happened: at the end of Happy Death Day, Tree didn’t close the time loop, she passed it on. And the source of the time loop is Ryan’s machine.

This recasts the events of Happy Death Day as a sci-fi mishap instead of a grand cosmic instigator of personal growth. Yet it doesn’t undermine the first film at all. Carter tells Tree that it being an accident doesn’t make it any less meaningful, and he’s right. In fact, the film’s main plot makes Tree’s emotional development, her grief for her mother and her love for Carter, even more central than in the first.

Ryan tries running Sissy to close the loop, but after the ensuing blast, Tree wakes up on Monday the 18th again. But something’s off. It starts with smaller details: Tree has woken up on this day so many times and nothing’s ever changed, but this time, her sorority sister Danielle isn’t waiting for her to come back to the house, and her roommate hasn’t baked her a cupcake. Ryan explains the multiverse theory with a napkin, theorizing that Tree got pushed into an alternate dimension. He’s right: in this dimension, Danielle and Carter are dating. Tree goes to have dinner with her dad, and is confused when he tells the waitress they’re waiting on one more. Then her mother walks through the door. In this dimension, she’s alive.

Tree decides she wants to stay. This dimension might be weird and different – she is filled with rage and disbelief that Carter and Danielle could end up together, in any universe – but her mom’s alive, and that’s the most important thing. She asks Ryan if he and his nerd friends can figure out a way to close the time loop but keep her in this dimension. The problem is that would take days and days of work, and since the time loop resets every day, they have to start totally afresh every time. The workaround they land on is to have Tree – very much not a scientist – memorize everything: to be a living record. And since the Babyface Killer is chasing her, she kills herself every day to avoid having to be hunted down and murdered.

This leads to one of the most delightful montages of recent memory: Tree memorizes quantum physics, stews in her resentment of Carter dating Danielle, and commits suicide over and over. She drinks bleach, drops a hairdryer in the bath, and dives head-first into a wood chipper. “Hard Times” by Paramore plays, and its lyrics are rendered fantastically literal: while Hayley Williams sings “when I hit the ground,” Tree skydives in a bikini, landing in a bloody splatter.

Tree has to decide between the dimension where she gets to be with Carter and the one where her mother survives, but really, it’s a decision between holding onto the past and moving into the future. Her mother references memories she doesn’t have, and it makes her realize that this isn’t her life. Her grief from her mother’s death is part of who she is, and the version of Tree from this universe – the version that her mother thinks she is – is someone else. Staying here is a futile attempt to recreate lost innocence, to retreat into a past that no longer exists. When they pull off her trip home and Tree wakes up on Tuesday the 19th, she asks Carter about Danielle. “Who?” he says. Her hug knocks him to the ground.

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Landon followed the Happy Death Day movies with Freaky, another high-concept genre mash-up. This time, it’s a cross between a slasher movie and a teen body-swap comedy: Freaky Friday the 13th, essentially. Landon lays his cards on the table when the words “Wednesday the 11th” appear on screen during the opening scene: a cold open that sees drunk, horny teenagers telling campfire stories about the Blissfield Butcher. They all get killed, obviously: a wine bottle rammed down the throat, a head smashed with a toilet seat, a body impaled on the wall.

If you were dismissive of Happy Death Day for not being “proper” horror – their genre hybridity risks diluting the slasher elements for sci-fi, comedy, romance, and on and on – Freaky suffers no such problems. Rated R where Happy Death Day was PG-13, it’s both a more traditional slasher, with plenty of violent kills, and more ambitious. It takes Landon’s specific brand of horror-comedy that the Happy Death Day movies pioneered and pushes it further in both the comedy and horror directions, making for something thoroughly inventive and charming.

Vince Vaughn plays the Blissfield Butcher, the campfire legend killer the teens talk about in that opening scene. He is a classical slasher villain: shuffling gait, super strength, compulsively killing. Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) is a Panic! at the Disco fanatic who is anxiously protective of her widowed alcoholic mother and bullied by the cool kids at her high school. When the Butcher stabs Millie with an ancient mystical dagger – he doesn’t know the significance of it, he just loves stabbing people – it causes them to swap bodies overnight: the Butcher wakes up in Millie’s body, and Millie wakes up as a middle-aged man.

Having swapped bodies, Millie and the Butcher both go to the high school. The Butcher, now portrayed by Kathryn Newton, immediately starts killing people: she locks Millie’s bully in a cryotherapy tank to freeze to death and kills Millie’s woodshop teacher (Alan Ruck) with a table saw. It’s more usual slasher fare than in the Happy Death Day movies but not at all rote or boring: when the girl frozen in the cryo-chamber is found, her body falls and smashes into a million pieces. The woodshop teacher is sawed in half vertically, blood splattering everywhere. Playing a slasher villain isn’t normally a difficult role – any stuntman in a hockey mask can be Jason – but Newton’s small build and sweet looks mean it’s impressive how she pulls it off. Her facial expressions are menacingly blank, like she’s wearing a mask without needing to wear a mask.

Vince Vaughn-as-Millie, meanwhile, tries to convince her best friends Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla (Celeste O'Connor) that she actually is Millie, and not some creepy, insane man. Vaughn’s performance as Millie is amazing: he never overplays it or lapses into teen girl stereotypes, instead having such subtlety and attention to detail that you never doubt that he’s the same person Newton played in the film’s first act. He nervously bites his thumb and plays with his hair like Newton-as-Millie, and perfectly mimics her mannerisms and the cadence of her speech. But it goes so much deeper than an impression. He just is Millie. It’s no surprise that Josh and Nyla are eventually convinced, even though they initially run away in terror.

With some help from a Spanish teacher, they figure out that for Millie to get back to her own body, she needs to stab the Butcher with the mystical dagger before midnight: otherwise, the body-swap will be permanent. That means they need to get the dagger – currently held as evidence at the police station – and catch the Butcher, ideally before he can kill anyone else. Working on the latter, Millie saves her crush, Booker, from the Butcher. Booker and Millie’s scenes together are surprisingly really sweet. She recites a love poem she left anonymously in his locker to prove she really is Millie, and he later confesses that he’s always liked her. He kisses her while she’s still in the Butcher’s body, and it’s not weird or out-of-place or a gag; it’s genuine and romantic. (Millie tells him she’d rather wait until her hand isn’t bigger than his face.)

This is part of what makes Freaky feel so fresh and modern: it has a laid-back, no-big-deal LGBTQ+ sensibility. Whether it’s one of the main characters, Josh, being an out gay teenager played by a non-binary actor (Osherovich), or the characters' acknowledgement of the gender identity implications of the situation without getting bogged down in them – Josh and Nyla quickly arrive at addressing Vince Vaughn-as-Millie as “she” and proceed accordingly – Freaky couldn’t have been made any other time in slasher history. Landon and his co-writer Michael Kennedy “were both closeted queer kids in high school,” Landon told Variety, “and for us there was a certain fantasy and wish fulfillment, but also something full circle. For us to be able to write a character like Josh, who is out and comfortable. I was grateful that Universal and Blumhouse didn’t blink.”

Freaky and all of Landon’s slasher films take the genre and remold it for a new generation. The slasher formula is so simple and repeatable that it glues nicely onto totally different genres and story formulas. By mashing the slasher movie up with a time loop or multiverse or body-swap, Landon has breathed new life into a genre that hasn’t had that in a long while.

In Happy Death Day 2U, Tree has to decide between trying to recreate the past and moving towards the future. Slashers have spent decades trying to recreate the past. Landon’s work feels like finally moving towards the future.