Film Reviews

Happy Death Day 2U Leaves Horror Far Behind

If the history of the horror genre has taught us anything, it’s to go easy on the fast-tracked sequel. For example, if there’s a sequel in theaters and it feels for all the world like the prior film in the franchise literally just hit home video, you should lower your expectations. Some filmmaker clearly just got rushed into cranking out a sequel before they’ve even had the time to actually come up with a good idea. So, you can probably expect a lesser carbon copy of what came before.

Christopher Landon, director of 2017’s Happy Death Day and now writer-director of Happy Death 2U, seems keenly aware of this. His sequel arrives less than a year and a half after Happy Death Day proved “Groundhog Day meets Scream” was a great idea for a horror-comedy, and at first he seems content to literally redo the first film:

Through some sci-fi shenanigans involving a particle accelerator-like device on the college campus, Tree (Jessica Rothe) ends up trapped in the same time loop again – same exact day, same outfit, same set of people on campus to deal with, same sad dinner with her dad, same…well, you get the idea. When she dies at the end of some masked slasher’s knife, the loop begins anew, and the only way out is to solve the identity of her killer.

Except this time her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) isn’t the killer. In fact, her roommate isn’t evil at all.

Also, her boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard) is now dating Danielle (Rachel Matthews), the bitchy, airhead head of her sorority.

And, spoiler, her mother is still alive!

This is something alternate timeline, Back to the Future II shit, isn’t it?

Yep. The script even hangs a lantern on that, and as with the first film Tree remains pop-culturally illiterate and thus still doesn’t totally get that her life continues to resemble some popular movie. So, what begins as a retread of the first Happy Death Day turns into an entirely different beast, sprawling into various different genres, including – and quite amusingly – a heist movie when the stupid college Dean confiscates the particle accelerator.

This lean into genre hybridization and harder, geekier sci-fi ensures Happy Death 2U all but completely leaves the horror genre behind. Not that the first film, once the time loop kicks in, is ever overly scary. It is PG-13, after all, but it still trades in horror tropes, charting the clever evolution of a slasher scenario’s slutty character type into becoming a final girl.

The sequel, however, only occasionally includes moments with a masked killer or killers. Halfway through, Tree seems to even forget about that side of the story, and so does the film. In the third act, we actually end up watching an incredibly over-the-top bit involving Danielle pretending to be a blind French exchange student to distract the Dean during the heist. It’s very easy at times like that to forget there’s a masked killer on the loose somewhere else in the plot.

That’s because Tree quickly realizes no one is actually hunting her in this new timeline; they’re hunting Lori and only target her if she gets in the way.

So, there doesn’t need to be yet another fun montage of Tree being killed in increasingly funny ways; instead, she dreams up clever ways to kill herself – thus the big movie trailer moment of her jumping from a plane in a bikini. That allows her to reset the loop on her own schedule and then use each day to work with Ryan (Phi Vu) and the science nerds to find a way out of this crazy sci-fi scenario.

This also means Happy Death Day remains a movie franchise that is basically about other movies. It’s just Christopher Landon doing extended riffs on movies people his age grew up on. He’s already done Groundhog Day. Now he’s doing Back to the Future II. And who knows what other time travel story he’ll pull from for the planned Happy Death Day 3 teased in an extended mid-credits stinger.

But, screw it. I grew up on these same movies, and it is interesting to see them being mashed up like this. It at least feels new to watch a slasher franchise which dabbles so much in time travel that we get to see a sequel with the same set of characters, but a different set of killers. It gives that particular part of the ending a strong “that’s how it could have happened” feel ala Clue. In fact, I actually like this ending better.

Besides, as with the first Happy Death Day, the primary reason to watch this franchise is Jessica Rothe. Delightful as always, she plays the “do I stay in this new timeline with my mom or try to get home to my Carter?” drama for all its worth.

The novelty is gone, of course, but this isn’t quite the fast-tracked sequel it appears to be. According to Fangoria, there was no pressure from money-hungry producers to make a sequel. Instead, Christopher Landon came up with this idea while editing Happy Death Day, and when he shared it with Jason Blum he got an instant greenlight to go make his sequel. Should there be a third installment, I remain curious to see what genre they’ll hijack next.

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