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Watch ‘Happy Death Day,’ Then Watch These Movies

Then watch them again and again and again.
By  · Published on October 14th, 2017

Then watch them again and again and again.

There is one obvious movie to recommend after you watch Happy Death Day, the slasher film about a college student who keeps repeating the same day over and over. And, yes, it’s on this week’s list. But there are many other movies worth looking at in relation to the new hit horror fantasy.

Some of them we presented already as a collection of time loop titles to get you in the mood ahead of time. Others, including the obvious, are on a list of acknowledged influences director Christopher Landon shared with /Film. Taking some minor inspiration from the latter, here are my picks for eight movies to  familiarize yourself with next.

Dead of Night (1945)

Happy Death Day is being sold on the idea that it’s Groundhog Day meets horror, but that’s a ridiculous ignorance of film history. Not only is the idea of a time loop well-connected to ghost stories and the concept of murder victims repeating their own deaths over and over as residual phantoms (see Lady in White), but there’s also this classic horror anthology film from Ealing Studios.

The meat of the movie is five spooky stories, directed by the likes of Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, and Basil Dearden, from tales by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, and others, but the linking narrative concerns a purgatorial loop where the entire plot has happened before and will happen again, a nightmare inside a nightmare inside a nightmare and so forth. For optimum appreciation, re-watch it a second time immediately.

D.O.A. (1949)

In Happy Death Day, a college student (Jessica Rothe) keeps reliving her own murder — which is a different sort of kill each time — and eventually realizes she needs to find out who done it, or who will do it, in order to move on to the next day. She’s like a homicide detective out to solve her own case, and fortunately she’s able to remember her previous experiences of the looped day.

There are plenty of movies where a character has to solve his or her own murder, but usually it’s a ghost (see Ghost) or someone reincarnated (see Oh Heavenly God). In this classic film noir, a man tells the police of his own murder just before he dies. He was poisoned and spent the remaining hours of his life figuring out who slipped him the toxin and why and then tracking that person down and killing him. The movie has been remade a few times, most notably in 1988 as DOA with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. The 2006 Jason Statham action movie Crank also has a similar premise.

Sixteen Candles (1984)

Although set at college, Happy Death Day shares some elements with this classic John Hughes-helmed high school comedy. For one thing, the movie is set over the course of the protagonist’s birthday, and she’s having just the worst birthday possible. Of course, in Sixteen Candles the issue is that Molly Ringwald’s day is overshadowed by the fact that it’s the eve of her sister’s wedding, whereas in Happy Death Day Rothe’s character’s day is overshadowed by the fact that it’s also her death day.

There’s also the visual reference near the end of Happy Death Day where Rothe and Israel Broussard are sitting opposite each other with a cupcake between them, just like Ringwald and Michael Schoeffling in the final scene of Sixteen Candles with a whole cake between them. Landon does include this movie on his list of influences. “This might seem like an odd choice as an influence for a horror movie,” he says, “but Happy Death Day is also a coming-of-age love story, and nobody captured the joy and comedic angst of being young better than John Hughes.”

Groundhog Day (1993)

Here’s the obvious. But it’s not just because of the protagonist having to repeat the same day over and over until they figure out what they need to change or accomplish in order to move forward in time. Or because it’s directly referenced in a line of dialogue in Happy Death Day. The college campus of Happy Death Day, particularly the main quad where Tree (Rothe) steps out every repeated morning, resembles the town square that Phil (Bill Murray) steps out into every repeated morning in Groundhog Day. Also the town square from Back to the Future, which is another movie that Landon cites as an influence, especially on the tone of his own.

Here’s what Landon has to say about Groundhog Day‘s influence on Happy Death Day: “Well…duh. Of course this movie was immensely influential as it is the granddaddy of time-loop movies. I love this movie so much. Sharp wit, clever, with a heart, it’s about as perfect as a comedy can get. I had to reference it in Happy Death Day to pay my respects.” Speaking of that reference, if you’re like Tree and don’t know anything about this movie (and especially if like her you don’t even know who Bill Murray is), then drop everything and see it first, ASAP.  If you want more like it, and Happy Death Day, I’ve got a list of other stuck-in-a-time-loop films.

Scream 2 (1997)

Another of Landon’s influences is the original Scream. “It is one of the best movies to combine genuine scares with big laughs,” he recognizes of the hit postmodern horror film. Happy Death Day does attempt a very different sort of deconstruction of the slasher genre as well as some meta conversations about what to do in the situation of being in one. And both of the young woman protagonists are dealing with the fairly recent death of their mother. Also, the killer turns out to be someone very close to that main character.

I guess I’m recommending Wes Craven’s 1996 original by default, too, but I’m focusing on the sequel, also helmed by Craven and also scripted by Kevin Williamson, because it’s set on a college campus. Plus, as with many sequels, this one makes the main character go through the same premise as before, as if she’s in a loop, repeating the horrible tragedy of watching her friends die one by one in order to uncover a murderer with the same mask, who again is someone she knows closely. Scream 2 also has a great Partridge Family-covering musical number.

Final Destination (2000)

Movies that follow the Groundhog Day premise, as Happy Death Day does, need to follow their protagonist through a full normal day before we see them wake up in the repeat. That’s how they set up a lot of the punch lines and other satisfying moments that are revisited the second time and third time and so on.

The Final Destination movies do the same thing, though that first time around is always revealed to be a premonition for the main character who foresees his or her own and others’ deaths in a plane, traffic, rollercoaster, NASCAR, or bridge collapse accident. The franchise, of which the first remains the best, relates to movies like Happy Death Day by way of Dead of Night since the premonition is more like a nightmare come true than an act of time travel looping. Unlike Happy Death Day, though, Final Destination has no killer other than the unseen Angel of Death and the more realistic-seeming (and therefore scarier) idea that they’re individual cases of freak accidents.

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Landon mentions Heathers as an influence (“the OG Mean Girls“), which is one of my favorite movies of all time, but instead of that one I’m going with this college-set comedy that’s almost as cruel and almost as acerbic. Based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis and scripted and directed by Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary, the movie has a smaller death count but does feature roommates who are into the same guy and a scene where the female lead is being assaulted in bed and her assailant is cheered on by another boy.

The Rules of Attraction also plays a lot with time, though it’s for storytelling effect rather than something experienced by any characters. The nonlinear movie follows three characters, each of their arcs being given a separate anthological segment that rewinds at the end to go back to the original point in time to begin the next overlapping part. James van der Beek is surprisingly good in this, mostly acting with his face.

Amanda Knox (2016)

This week’s documentary pick does not involve an actual instance of a time loop, though I thought about finding a film about reincarnation where a subject recalls his or her own murder (no luck there). Instead, this Netflix doc is one that focuses on the base character drama of Happy Death Day: roommate killing.

The title subject of Amanda Knox was convicted of murdering her roommate in Italy, where the two young women were studying abroad. Many people still believe she was involved in the killing, maybe along with her boyfriend who was also initially convicted, but she was later acquitted after serving many years in prison. She is the primary voice of the doc, though, and personally explains the whole story with intercut comments from the boyfriend, prosecutors, a tabloid journalist, and others.

While not as easily relevant, a much better true crime doc I recommend that’s also on Netflix is Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. Aside from sharing a scene with Happy Death Day where a cop pulling over someone is killed, the doc also replays the same murder scene over and over and over as a narrative device to show varying points of view of the murder as it’s being investigated.


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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.