The Hidden Beauty of the Doppelgänger Movie

Audiences complain about a lack of new ideas in Hollywood, but there's a comfort to films with a formula.
Happy Death Day; Groundhog Day   |   Courtesy of Photofest
Audiences complain about a lack of new ideas in Hollywood, but there's a comfort to films with a formula.

We’re stuck in repeat. Reliving the same moments over and over again. It can be a limiting experience, but it can also be freeing, comforting to know the rules and to think we can outsmart them. We are creatures of habit, but it’s only when we’re made aware of how finite those habits can be and how they come to define us, that we can introduce new variables and force change. This is the challenge at the heart of Happy Death Day (2017), and its sequel Happy Death Day 2U, which hit theaters last weekend. But it’s also the challenge of narrative media, specifically film in this case. It’s a challenge we’re not always up to. Copycats, knockoffs, pod-movies, call them what you like, but movie doppelgängers are a habit we can’t seem to break.

As moviegoers, we often claim to crave originality. For every superhero movie, franchise sequel, reboot or remake that gets buzz, there’s a segment of the population asking for original ideas and new concepts. Just check out the social media responses any time a news story about a remake, new adaptation, or sequel breaks. But there’s a comfort that’s often found in familiarity, an inviting shorthand that even our so-called original movies can’t entirely avoid. There’s an attraction for both filmmakers and audiences to projects that are reminiscent of other films, but give a fresh coat of paint, or in Happy Death Day’s case, blood. It could even be argued that our “original films” that imitate other films, both popular and those that went under the radar, are better received than those films that do make an attempt to chart a new path for originality. If we look at film, storytelling, as a conversation, it’s difficult to say that anything is entirely original. Stories pull from each other, tropes form genres, and genres form formulas that even deconstructions can’t entirely escape. Whether we’re talking narrative beats or shot construction, many of our narrative, non-avant-garde films are constructed out of a language of influences and imitations, some more so than others.

While Halloween (2018) may have been their buzziest release yet, Blumhouse has made a name for itself on original properties, a number of which have kindred cinematic spirits in horror films and filmmakers past. From InsidiousCarnival of Souls (1962) influence, to The Green Inferno’s reverence for Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Blumhouse has found success in producing films that are geared towards double-features that highlight horror’s past and present. Even its most original films like Get Out (2017) and Cam (2018) employ a host of horror influences to successfully make its points. Part of why we don’t blink at these allusions and choice imitations is that many are not coming for movies well-known by general audiences. A shark movie can imitate Jaws (1975) and everyone is aware, but a ghost story evoking a cult film like Carnival of Souls can easily slip under the radar. In 2017, Blumhouse found one of its biggest successes with a movie that’s source of inspiration is so clear it’s unmissable.

In Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is caught in a time loop, one in which she’s hunted down by a masked killer who makes her very aware of how many people would like to see her dead. Over the course of the film she realizes what a horrible person she is and she begins to change, fall in love, and reclaims her life. If it sounds familiar that’s because it’s the plot of Harold Ramis classic comedy Groundhog Day (1993), in which weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) is stuck repeating the same day and coming to terms with his own awfulness. Happy Death Day blends in slasher elements, but its structure and comedic timing is very similar. This wasn’t a bad thing, at least not according to audiences whose attendance led the film to a $125.5 million worldwide gross on a $4.8 million budget. Happy Death Day’s riff on Groundhog Day holds an appeal, and while many lauded the success of an original horror property and the launch of a new franchise, a large part of that appeal was surely because audiences had a way in, an entry point of familiarity. Audiences didn’t have to rely on a slasher icon they knew, a cast of well-known actors, or even a recognizable director to get them in the door. All they needed was that simple pitch line of Groundhog Day meets teen slasher movie and they knew what they could expect.

Happy Death Day’s success is nothing new. For decades we’ve seen popular films that are modified clones of the original. Think of them as Bizarros and Superboys to the original Superman, some entirely worthy, self-sufficient and cool, and others a bit backwards, and yeah, a little stupid in their approach. Both are always in the shadow of a larger figure. Some of these imitators, like those that fall into the Western genre, have largely fallen out of fashion. But others have remained prominent throughout the decades. One such film that we see a doppelgänger of almost every year is Death Wish (1974). The Charles Bronson crime thriller about a man who seeks vengeance after his family is killed isn’t a particularity great film. It lacks psychological depth and, in terms of revenge, Bronson’s Paul Kersey isn’t even targeting those responsible for his family’s death, just random criminals in his pursuit of vigilante justice. But the film stuck, not only delivering sequels, but imitators.

Focusing solely on 21st century Death Wish clones, Jodie Foster delivered a female take on the story with The Brave One (2007), Kevin Bacon went all out and shaved his head for James Wan’s Death Sentence (2007), Bruce Willis gave a sleepy-eyed performance in Eli Roth’s Death Wish (2018) remake, and Jennifer Garner became a vigilante mom in Peppermint (2018). These are only a few of the more noteworthy entries, but across theatrical, VOD, and DTV releases, there’s a lot more of the same. And we’ll see this narrative again in a few weeks with the Liam Neeson-starrer Cold Pursuit. Even taking into account that most of these movies did not do well enough to make a case that audiences want to see more of these movies, studios keep making them. One reason is because revenge stories are easy and cheap to tell, and the second reason is that there’s the hope that one of them will break the mold and become a new success story, the next step for the sub-genre that will inspire its own imitators. Some of them have. Jeremy Saulnier’s excellent Blue Ruin (2013) strips revenge of its action and glory and shows just how hard and ugly a job it is. John Wick (2014) plays on Death Wish with a dog replacing a wife and daughter, but goes beyond the simple premise of revenge to a story of survival and inner-peace. For every loop of similarly-themed films we create, there are always a few that manage to break out.

More appealing to audiences than revenge are the crazy ex and stalker films that became increasingly popular after Glenn Close boiled a bunny in Fatal Attraction (1987). The '90s gave us Drew Barrymore and Alicia Silverstone scheming their way into the families of attractive older men in Poison Ivy (1992) and The Crush (1993). Mark Wahlberg creeped on Reese Witherspoon in Fear (1996). The 2000s brought stalking down to a PG-13 level with Swimfan (2002) and The Roommate (2011). And Beyoncé rallied audiences with Obsessed (2009), leading to a new generation of Fatal Attraction knockoffs aimed at black audiences like No Good Deed (2014), The Perfect Guy (2015), The Boy Next Door (2015) When the Bough Breaks (2016), and Unforgettable (2017). Dennis Quaid gets in on this action as an overbearing neighbor in this year’s The Intruder. If these films weren’t already giving away the entire movie in their trailers, audiences still wouldn’t have a problem knowing beat for beat which direction they’re going to head in. There’s a comfort food quality to films like these, a certain pleasure that comes from being ahead of the characters in the movie and calling out their stupidity. Even when most…Ok, even when all of these movies pale in comparison to Glenn Close and Michael Douglas’ bad romance, there’s often a moment of pure absurdity, like Beyoncé and Ali Larter caught in a knock-down drag out fight for domestic dominance, that makes it almost worth the price of admission, or at least a rental.

Most of our movie doppelgängers happen in the low to mid-budget range, but even our biggest movies aren’t able to entirely break the habit of repetition. It’s a case that has been made many times before, but the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar (2009), is undeniably similar to Dances With Wolves (1990) and Pocahontas (1995). James Cameron is one of our smartest filmmakers, but even he’s not above a re-contextualized imitation. For almost a decade, bloggers and critics have tried to come up for a reason why Avatar, a film without any ties to an existing property or any major stars, managed to make $2.788 billion, achieving what no film has been able to accomplish since, despite how many Avengers and Star Wars films we’ve gotten. Some will claim it was the 3D technology, others will blame the lack of quality blockbusters in 2009. But when it comes down to it, there was a desire, whether conscious or not, to be reminded of certain truths that hold a cultural place for us, regardless of age, race, gender, or creed. Avatar was quite simply a movie for everyone. Revenge stories and stalker movies are limited by their audiences, but really Avatar is just another habit, clung to on a larger scale.

Like any habit, these movie doppelgängers can become mundane. But when we’re given alternatives, films that break the mode in either storytelling or execution, we often reject them. Sometimes it’s a case of not having an easy entry point, and thus films like Jupiter Ascending (2015) and Mortal Engines (2018) never find their audiences even while existing in familiar genres. Other times it’s a case expecting to see something we’re familiar with and getting something different like The Good Dinosaur (2015), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). This isn’t an admonishment of popular tastes, rather a recognition in the fact that sometimes stories are simply told at the wrong time. But for all our talk and request for original films, it’s worth considering what we mean by that. Do we mean original IP? Original titles? Or, films that hide their duplicate nature better than others? Imitation isn’t an inherently negative thing, but it does seem like something we should be aware of, if only to better understand what each individual film is trying to achieve and meet it on its own terms. Based on what keeps getting made, it seems we welcome this invasion of the movie-snatchers. And if we’re left disappointed by the result, and we become too aware of the formula, well then there’s always the sequel. 

  • Richard Newby