It’s 2019. And final girls have done some growing up.
Watching Happy Death Day back in October 2017, it was immediately clear that I was witnessing the rise of a whole new type of “final girl,” one played with such manic, all-in gusto by star-in-the-making Jessica Rothe that I knew, without the need for any sort of hindsight, that Rothe had become an instant “scream queen.” Her Tree Gelbman? An instant horror icon.
If that wasn’t clear then, it’s damn sure crystal clear now.
What’s truly special about this franchise’s lead, who’s currently dying over and over again up on the big screen once more in Happy Death Day 2U, is that she’s quite unlike the “final girls” of the past. Throughout the 1980s, the “final girl” was defined almost exclusively by her triumphant survival at the end of a slasher film, the often-virginal “good girl” who proves to be the only one worthy of vanquishing the big bad. But as Meagan pointed out in her recent piece “10 Modern Final Girls Who Changed the Formula,” Tree isn’t actually the “good girl” at all.
At the start of Happy Death Day, Tree is (in Meagan’s words) a “ruthless sorority sister with a long list of enemies,” making her the sort of character who would, in any other slasher movie, be killed off before the final act. And we’d cheer at her demise. But the Groundhog Day-inspired Happy Death Day isn’t any other slasher movie. And Tree isn’t any other slasher character. Rather, Tree cleverly evolves through the first film from a body count victim to the classic “final girl” – ironically, she must die multiple times in order to earn that status.
Go figure, eh?
Tree’s unique arc puts a spin on the typical “final girl” trope, making her a new sort of heroine for a whole new generation. A generation that does better by its female characters than the generations of the past, quite honestly. Horror films – slashers in particular – have always excelled at giving us female leads who eventually embody the term “badass,” but Tree is not the sort of character who’s defined by the weapon she picks up or the killer she slays. She’s not just a “survivor girl,” but rather a rich, complex character who’s written and performed with great emotional depth. She doesn’t defeat the central character. She *is* the central character.
In Happy Death Day, it’s not just about Tree bravely killing off the masked maniac and surviving until the end of the film. Quite the opposite, really. It’s about Tree *dying* repeatedly in order to learn from her mistakes and grow as a character. And in Happy Death Day 2U, which takes that personal growth an emotional step further, it’s about Tree literally killing herself, repeatedly, on this same quest for growth and evolution. It’s what kills her that makes her stronger.
While many films take a surface level approach to their “strong female characters,” imbuing them with literal strength but little else, the Happy Death Day movies present a heroine so wonderfully and completely realized that this may very well be the first ever slasher franchise with a “final girl” character as the main selling point. A character who evolves. A character who, with each new film thus far, becomes a better person right before our eyes. On a very relatable level, a horror heroine to look up to and draw inspiration from. And at a time when there’s so much cruelty being thrown around on a daily basis, we could all use a character like Tree to remind us that it’s never too late to be better to ourselves and to those around us.
Arguably, Tree’s most heroic moments have nothing to do with the handguns and axes she wields. Rather, her true heroism comes in the form of inspirational life wisdom she attains from quite literally living the same day over and over again, which she dishes out to a closeted schoolmate in the first film and a roommate making bad decisions in the second. None of us can relate to a camp counselor cutting off the head of a vengeful mother out to kill her, but Tree’s trials, tribulations and triumphs impart a wellspring of qualities we can draw from.
When you buy a ticket to see a Happy Death Day movie, you’re not paying to see “Babyface” or to watch attractive young people get brutally dispatched. You’re paying to see a new slasher icon: a flawed young woman who’s just trying to be the best version of herself that she can be. And never had that been more clear to me than during the opening 10 minutes of Happy Death Day 2U, which delay the return of Tree by instead focusing on actor Phi Vu’s Ryan Phan. In this opening sequence, Ryan finds himself in his own time loop, pursued by an unknown killer wearing the “Babyface” mask. Without Tree, quite honestly, the movie kicks off on a pretty lackluster note, cementing my personal belief that Happy Death Day is one franchise that simply could never continue without her. Other slasher franchises soldiered on without their leading ladies, but I just don’t think there’s anything to Happy Death Day without Tree.
Final girls aren’t just surviving anymore. With Tree as a new trailblazer, joined by a returning Laurie Strode just last year, they’re finally taking over the whole damn sub-genre.
And it’s about time.