Is Happiest Season a Horror Film?

A scientific exploration.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

I was about halfway through Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season, the new “rom-com” on Hulu, when I realized it was actually horror film and a sense of peace washed over me. Suddenly, it all made sense. Any minute now, the Caldwell family was going to take our hero Abby (Kristen Stewart) down to the basement, strap her in a chair, and introduce her to the Sunken Place. I kept waiting for it to happen—I flinched every time Abby was alone in a room or walking down an empty corridor—but it never did. Do I need to wait for the sequel? Did the actual, more horrific ending not test well with preview audiences, forcing rom-commy reshoots? The signs were all there. Let’s break it down.

For those who don’t know, Abby and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are an extremely fetching lesbian couple. Abby was orphaned at 19, so she has an aversion to Christmas and all its attendant family traditions. One night, in a moment of blissful coupledom, Harper invites Abby to her family’s house for Christmas. Abby hesitates at first, but then warms to the idea. The next morning, however, Harper is in a panic and tries to passive aggressively disinvite her. It doesn’t work: Abby is attached to the idea—and off they go. It’s not until they are practically at the Caldwell residence that Harper drops the bomb: Her parents don’t know she’s gay. What’s more, Harper’s father is running for mayor, and they want to maintain an image of conservative perfection. Abby is going to have to pretend to be Harper’s straight, orphaned roommate for the duration of the trip.

Honestly, this is the first horror trope, although I didn’t take note of it at the time: Abby is stuck in the car with Harper. She has no way of escaping. Also, she has just found out that she doesn’t know her lover quite as well as she thinks (all work and no play makes Harper a dull girl?). Since I’m in a charitable mood, I will admit that the best jokes of the film come from Abby awkwardly referring to herself as an orphan and over emphasizing her straightness, as one does. (This is improved when her gay bestie, played by Dan Levy, shows up and also pretends to be conspicuously hetero: “Do you bench?” he gruffly asks Harper’s ex boyfriend.)

Anyway, here are all the clues that this sucker is, in fact, a horror film.

Harper’s Sister Jane (Mary Holland)
When we first meet Jane, she enthusiastically jumps out from behind a wall to surprise her younger sister. Harper recoils and is instantly annoyed. She told Jane not to do that! Jane seems childlike, spacey, and a little hyperactive. But what exactly is her deal? Is she merely eccentric? Slightly touched? All we know is that she is writing an elaborate fantasy novel and she otherwise doesn’t seem to work. We also know that her family freaking hates her. This is basically the “rejected aunt who lives in the attic” trope except she manages to live among her family. She’s like Cinderella, but a blood relative. They use her for IT support and nothing else. Otherwise, they mock or ignore her. These people are MONSTERS.

Harper’s Other Sister, Sloane (Alison Brie)
When Sloane shows up, I assumed a certain amount of normalcy might come with her. But no. Turns out, Sloane and Harper also hate each other? The family is mad at Sloane because she left her job as a silk-stocking lawyer to be a mother and start a Goop-approved gift basket company. Harper is clearly the favorite child—the favoritism is not subtle— and Sloane resents her for it. This manifests in the form of sniping, which devolves into actual fist fighting, and then reaches its nadir when Sloane outs Harper in front of the whole family. This is…unforgiveable? (Oh, they also destroy the cute painting that Jane worked really hard on because they are human garbage people?)

Sloane’s Children
I don’t have much to say about these awful hellspawn, other that they framed Abby for shoplifting for no reason except they are pint-sized sociopaths. I wouldn’t let them anywhere near the family pet. [Edited to add: A follower on Twitter pointed out that the little demons are twins. Definitely not a horror trope AT ALL.]

Harper’s Parents, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) and Ted (Victor Garber)
As mentioned, they are terrible parents, completely obsessed with appearance, clueless about their children’s actual wants and needs, casually cruel to both their children and their house guest. Also, Tipper seems to want to be some sort of middle-aged influencer, as she’s constantly running around taking snapshots for the ‘Gram. The stuff of nightmares! (I will give credit where credit is due: Tipper is a great WASP-y name.)

Harper Herself
Okay, here’s the doozy. Here’s the reason why I thought Abby was going to find a box filled with Polaroids of Harper’s other insouciantly sexy lesbian lovers that her family had disposed of: Harper is the WORST. No, really, she’s horrible.

It all starts in the first scene—yes, before the family road trip. She takes Abby to a rooftop of a house that isn’t hers—trespassing, I believe is the official word for it—and when they are caught, she skedaddles, leaving Abby hanging from the roof by her fingertips. Then Abby falls three stories to the ground, her fall only slightly dampened by a blow-up snowman on the grass. At which point, Harper giggles, grabs Abby’s hand, and off they run. No, “Are you okay?” “Do you think anything is broken?” “I’m so sorry I made you trespass on a roof and you almost died.” Nope, just giggle, run, and a makeout sesh in an alley (leading to the ill-advised invitation to family Christmas). Then, she tries to gaslight Abby into not coming home with her, making it seem like she’s the one doing Abby a favor by disinviting her. Then she tells Abby the truth when it’s way too late for Abby to do anything about it. But she’s just getting started.

At home, as we’ve established, she’s unspeakably awful to both of her sisters. But she is even worse to Abby. Not only is she forcing Abby to live a lie, but after Abby is accused of shoplifting, she doesn’t defend her. In fact, she goes in the opposite direction, agreeing that, for appearance’s sake, it’d be best if ol’ sticky-fingers Abby doesn’t attend some sort of fancy fundraising event. But she promises she’ll make it up to her, by giving her a little private time after the party. I mean, finally. To kill time and lick her wounds, Abby goes out for a drink with Riley (Aubrey Plaza), the woman she is CLEARLY MEANT TO BE WITH. This is the best scene in the film—Riley is beautiful and smart and knows who she is. It features two of my favorite drag queens—BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon—singing goofy Christmas songs.

Finally, the damn thing feels like a joyful holiday film! Then Abby gets a text from Harper. She sheepishly apologizes to Riley and heads to a different bar to meet Harper and finally get that alone time. Except Harper is not there by herself. She’s with her high school boyfriend and friends! She hopes Abby doesn’t mind! And, in fact, when Abby feels left out—because she’s being left out—and says she’s calling it a night, Harper says, basically, “Don’t wait up.” It’s at this point that Abby considers taking an Uber back to the Pittsburgh, but the surge fee is over $1,000. The horror!

Abby’s Creepy Basement Bedroom
I mean, enough said.

The “Escape”
After Sloane outs Harper, Abby finally escapes the hellish Caldwell residence. But, like most horror films, this is a misdirection. Harper tracks her down (using a tracking device!), apologizes, and pledges her undying devotion. All the while you’re watching and thinking, “No, Abby, don’t go back into the house!” But, it’s a horror film, so of course she does.

The Resolution
Somehow, after all of this, the Caldwell family has completely changed. They accept that Harper is a lesbian and embrace Abby into the family. They value actual family more than bogus “family values.” They are nice to Jane. Sloane even smiles warmly at her estranged husband. The children seem less “Children of the Corn-y.” It’s clearly a trap. I mean, I’ve never seen such an obvious trap. The film tries to convince us that this complete 180º is going to stick, by fast forwarding to “one year later.” The scene has no purpose other than a clumsy attempt assuage our frayed nerves. Look, it’s a year later and Abby is neither brainwashed nor dead, the film seems to tell us! If you say so, Happiest Season. If that’s really your name.

Happiest Season is now streaming on Hulu.