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SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains massive spoilers about the ending of Happy Death Day. If you have not yet seen the film, and don't wish for major details to be revealed, please bookmark this page and return after your screening!
Not all films get great responses during their initial test screenings -- but that's exactly why test screenings are done. Rough cuts are shown to average movie-goers so that they can express their opinions and changes can be made accordingly. It's a process that affects certain projects more than others, but in the case of Chris Landon's Happy Death Day, it wound up causing massive changes to the ending. As I recently learned from Landon, it originally concluded with a cliffhanger that audiences absolutely hated:
In the old version, Tree gets murdered again at the very end of the movie. So you kind of suggest she's going into a time loop again, but there was nothing definitive about it. And we actually shot a version of that, and the audiences were furious. They were so pissed off because they felt betrayed. They were like, 'Wait, she did all this hard work, and made all these changes and she's a better person now. And then you kill her again?!' And so because I still wanted the satisfaction of making people think, 'Oh god, it's never going to end,' and so that's how I came up with the ending that's in the movie now.
During my interview with Chris Landon at the Happy Death Day domestic press junket last month, I turned the conversation to spoiler-town when I asked about the evolution of the movie's ending. In his answer, the director explained that the comedy/horror film originally ended with Jessica Rothe's Tree being murdered one last time -- but that was hated so much that it forced the filmmakers to get creative and come up with something else.
In the theatrical cut of Happy Death Day, Tree thinks she has conquered her time loop when she successfully manages to stop the psychotic serial killer from escaping the hospital, but this turns out to be a false ending. After a nice night with Carter (Israel Broussard), she wakes to discover that she was still somehow murdered and once again has to relive the same day. Fortunately, it's quickly thereafter that she discovers the true homicidal maniac: her roommate Lori, who has been trying to feed her poison cupcakes.
My initial question about the conclusion of Happy Death Day was in regards to the identity of the killer -- and Chris Landon explained that it actually wasn't always just Lori behind all the murder. Instead, in a twist that would hopefully have made a lot more sense if actually executed, it was going to be revealed that Lori had been working with Gregory: the professor with whom Tree has been having an affair (played by Charles Aitken). Landon explained,
Lori was the killer in [Scott Lobdell's] script, but so was Gregory. They were doing it together - they were working together, and that reveal happened at the exact same time. For me, I liked hiding Lori more. I also liked this idea that Lori - and it was something that I did - that Lori was already trying to kill Tree at the very beginning of the day, and was unsuccessful because she couldn't get her to eat the damn cupcake. And so I came up with this idea of poisoning the cupcake, and that ended up being... it gave me the opportunity to create a false ending where we think she's solved everything, and everything is great, and then she eats that cupcake and she dies, and gets sucked back into the day again. So those were the big changes there.
These are obviously rather big alterations that would have completely changed the entire ending of Happy Death Day -- but it's a good thing the fixes were done because the finished cut is the best of these options. Also, because the movie ends with Tree successfully escaping the time loop but still not entirely understanding the nature of it, the door is left wide open for a sequel (which is definitely possible now that the film made more than five times its budget in its opening weekend).