Written by: Christopher Landon (screenplay), Scott Lobdell (characters)
Directed by: Christopher Landon
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, and Phi Vu
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Death makes a killer comeback.
If there were ever a sequel where you worried about seeing the same old shit again, it’d be Happy Death Day 2U. By its very nature, the original film had repetition woven into its DNA, as its Groundhog Day slasher concept forced audiences to watch poor Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) live—and die—through the same day over and over again before finally uncovering her killer’s identity. The prospect of a sequel almost seems like it should be dead on arrival, especially since the slasher genre largely thrives on formula and repetition. Returning writer/director Christopher Landon should be commended, then, for not only recognizing this but also for crafting a bold solution: downplay the slasher elements and push the follow-up into a different genre altogether. The black humor that lurked just beneath the surface of the original emerges in riotous fashion this time out, twisting this premise into the stuff of 80s sci-fi teen comedies, and it’s an absolute triumph in upending expectations.
Less Friday the 13th and more Real Genius, it opens where the original left off: with Tree free from the loop, enjoying the company of new boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard). This time, however, we see it from the perspective of Ryan (Phi Vu), who awakes in his car, busts in on Tree and Carter, then proceeds to go about his day until he’s murdered by a masked maniac. And then he goes through it again, much to the alarm of Tree, who lends her expertise on the subject when Ryan complains about his bout of déjà vu. During the course of this day, Ryan reveals that he and his friends’ experiments with quantum mechanics has produced a machine capable of altering time itself. Even more alarming: the experiment has gone completely haywire, leading to a moment of panic that sends Tree right back into her time loop, where she’ll once again relive her birthday.
The catch, however, is that this isn’t quite the exact day that she (and audiences) recall: subtle differences gradually accumulate, cluing Tree into recognizing that she’s in another dimension altogether. Bigger, much more consequential differences emerge, too: in this reality, Carter is dating bitchy sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), and Tree’s mother is still very much alive. And while there’s also a masked murderer roaming around in this dimension too, it’s almost relegated to the back burner in favor of Tree’s more existential conflict. As Ryan’s ragtag group tries to fix their reality-bending machine, Tree faces a tough choice: does she remain in this dimension as a person out of time but with her family intact, or does she return to her native dimension and resume the new life she’s carved there?
Not that it’s at all ponderous about any of this stuff. While Happy Death Day 2U is certainly sincere and oddly heart-warming when it needs to be (Tree’s reunion with her mother is overwhelmingly emotional), it’s a farcical take-off of the original. Forget turning it on its head: it’s almost like Landon took a butcher knife to Happy Death Day with the intention of turning it inside-out completely. After barely stifling the absurdist implications in the original, he allows them to erupt into a full bore black comedy here, practically sweeping the audience up in this madcap tale of doppelgangers, inter-dimensional travel, and assorted campus hijinks that ensue when Tree’s plans go south—which they often do, of course.
Compounding matters this time out is the revelation that the killer isn’t actually after Tree this time, meaning she’s forced to kill herself repeatedly in order to reset each day. In an especially demented call-back to the original, we’re treated to another montage of Tree dying multiple times in increasingly ludicrous fashion. Landon injects the natural splatter movie intrigue with a screwball sensibility, dreaming up outlandish death sequences involving hair-dryers, drainer fluid, and bikini-clad skydiving. It’s done so without much actual splatter, of course (we’re still in PG-13 territory), but it works all the same in honoring the franchise’s formula—even if Landon is also furiously tearing away at it. Much like its predecessor, Happy Death Day 2U wants you to revel in watching this girl die, and it’s even more irreverent about it this time around, providing more outrageous punchlines in place of gory payoffs. Watching someone die over and over has rarely been so amusing.
Of course, the original proved it had more than this deranged trick up its sleeve: at a certain point, that film slyly maneuvered the audience’s sympathies toward Tree. A character that started out as the bitchy, ill-fated sorority girl that would die early in most slashers evolved into a genuinely charming Final Girl; for a film that insists on her repeated demise, Happy Death Day is oddly sweet in its equal insistence that she’s able to improve herself. Part 2 honors her growth as a person, and, even though it reveals that her time loop wasn’t some sort of karmic retribution, it’s still mostly concerned with Tree’s soul. In this respect, the sequel actually owes more to Groundhog Day because of Tree’s existential quandary: this time, it’s not just a matter of surviving to the next day, but also a matter of learning how to process the trauma that’s made her who she is. I wouldn’t have guessed that Happy Death Day 2U would manage to outdo the original in being a genuine character study, but I should clearly stop underestimating this franchise.
That’s especially true as long as Jessica Rothe is around as Tree. Once again, she completely commandeers this movie, effectively making it a vehicle for her own rising star. Now that Tree has evolved from Final Girl to Survivor Girl, Rothe is both resolute and exasperated, hastily brandishing baseball bats with conviction but still aghast that she’s gotta do this shit all over again. Rothe’s manic, cartoon energy matches the sequel’s irreverence step-for-step, as she flashes sarcastic grins, frustrated eye-rolls, and playful winks throughout the carnage. She also knows when to dial it down and bring some gravitas to the unhinged proceedings, striking a delicate, nearly-impossible balance between glib self-awareness and absolute sincerity.
Tree remains as endearing as ever in her quest to save her skin and her soul, and the script provides her with layers of agency: not only is she responsible for resetting each day, but she’s also tasked with memorizing the group’s failed algorithms so they won’t constantly repeat their mistakes. “I’m not a scientist,” she insists, only to discover that she’s capable of more than she imagined. Few slashers seem to be as genuinely enamored with their Final Girls as this budding franchise, which has completely subverted the genre’s primal urge to kill off such darlings. By the end of Happy Death Day 2U, I’d dare say that Tree cements herself as a slasher icon.
If, of course, you can even consider this a slasher franchise at all anymore. To be sure, anyone showing up expecting to see more Baby-masked killers slaughtering coeds might be left disappointed. With the exception of a few nicely-crafted stalk-and-slash sequences, the murder plot almost feels like an afterthought. In fact, when it’s time to resolve this thread, it almost reeks of someone hastily remembering “oh shit, we forgot about that,” leading to an unhinged crescendo of delirious twists and turns. As it scrambles towards its climax, it sometimes has the farcical energy of a story being made up as it unfolds. Between its countdown clocks and a hastily-improvised heist (!), Happy Death Day 2U threatens to rollick right off of the rails as its audience clings for dear life. A nagging voice in your head whispers “none of this really makes sense” as you cling to the scraps of internal logic guiding this madness, but this is the type of film that just insists you go with it.
Besides, Landon reins it all in just enough. By the time Happy Death Day 2U slam cuts to its credits, it does so with the breathless sprinter with nothing left to give. The abrupt ending feels like a capitulation to the mad dash finish, almost as if it sees no there’s no sense in scripting a denouement to untangle the madness or catch a breath. Even a mid-credits stinger which looks to do just that spirals out into further madness, perhaps even pointing the way towards the next entry. Quite frankly, Happy Death Day 2U is so wild and exhausting in blowing itself up that I can’t imagine another sequel. Then again, I was just as skeptical about the prospect of this sequel, so I imagine I’ll be back here in about 18 months eating crow—again. It’s like a loop, you see.
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