By: Steve Pulaski
In theory, a sequel to Blumhouse's 2017 breakout slasher Happy Death Day is playing a dangerous game. It runs the risk of cheapening a high-concept horror film that was made more accessible by its PG-13 rating yet respect for almost everything that makes a solid slasher. The film also featured some rock-solid acting — not the first thing someone says when speaking about a horror flick — on top of memorable characters with whom empathizing with was easy, for once. The idea of a sequel and its potential approach, on the surface, suggested it would earn a spot alongside other cheap, ineffective genre followups to favorable originals.
But Happy Death Day 2U retains its terrific cast and clever writer/director Christopher Landon. Moreover, as opposed to trying to rehash the same premise, it doubles-down on the interworkings of the quantum mechanics that trapped its predecessor's main character in a vicious time-loop that caused her to relive the same day over and over again. While things aren't all polished with this picture from a narrative standpoint, there's enough working to elevate the characters to be likably human instead of merely likable, and a refined emotional arc that reminds you why you would even care to see them all again in another movie.
Happy Death Day concluded with self-absorbed college student, Tree (Jessica Rothe), solving her own murder, which was always carried out by someone in a baby mask, before waking up the day after her birthday ready to embrace new days with her boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard). Happy Death Day 2U begins immediately after, with Carter's roommate, Ryan (Phi Vu), waking up in his car and proceeding to interrupt both Tree and Carter caressing each other in his dorm. Ryan walks to the college science lab where he experiments with his quantum cooling reactor, nicknamed "Sissy." A few moments later, Ryan is murdered by a killer in a baby-mask and wakes up, again, in his car, destined to repeat the day over again.
Ryan informs Tree and Carter, and Tree responds by trying to kill the masked person herself. Things take a wild turn when Ryan is greeted by his "other self" from another dimension, this Ryan informing him that this time-loop is caused by Sissy and also subscribes to the multiverse theory. Through a twist of events I will dare not spoil, Ryan's time-loop gets passed back to Tree, who returns to reliving her birthday day-after-day — but in a different dimension. In this alternate universe, Carter is dating Tree's sorority sister, Danielle (Rachel Matthews), and Tree's own mother is alive and well.
The film revolves around the troubled decision Tree must make: either work with Ryan, Carter, and a few other nerds in order to get back to the only life she's known, where Carter is her boyfriend and her mother is dead, or embrace this new dimension that has her most integral family member back in her life.
Happy Death Day 2U takes bold risks, implementing significant changes to what could be considered an already successful premise. The tone is lighter here, with stronger doses of science-fiction and comedy instead of the horror elements that were ubiquitous in the first film. This allows the characters to be more than frantic pawns in a game too big for them. The way Landon's script allows Tree, Carter, and Ryan take a step forward in their development and be proactive in fighting the time-loop, as opposed to a psycho in a mask, shows their growth as characters and an awareness to discard repetition and familiarity with this sequel.
The humor is mostly fine. Some of it is forced, some of it is downright obnoxious, but a good amount of it is sincere and amiable. My favorite bit comes about halfway through: a montage of Tree using her expendable days to aid Carter and Ryan with Sissy's development to break the loop and inevitably committing suicide to restart the day all over again. The montage is set to Paramore's "High Times," which is so millennial and postmodern in its move to take what should be a hopeless slog of wasted days and spin it something comically deft and ironic. Soft touches such as Tree's "FML" shirt amidst this montage only liven an already humorous concept.
The only other setback is that Landon occasionally doesn't seem to want to play by his own rules. When we meet Ryan's doppelganger in the first act, we assume we might see Tree and Carter meet their counterparts in other dimensions as well. Ryan's doppelganger makes clear that Sissy is capable of producing this kind of inter-dimensional conflict if not destroyed, causing people's likenesses begin to come in contact with one another. This idea isn't explored at all after it is introduced, and the fact that the time-loop somehow affects Tree all over again (when it's really not well-explained why Tree was affected in the first place, since she was not even aware of Sissy's existence) is more about plot-convenience than actual plot-development.
Happy Death Day 2U is not a film that permits great critical dissection of its story; it'll crumble under the weight of logic and coherence, even when examined with its own rules in mind. But this is a more mature sequel from the standpoint of its themes and characters. Jessica Rothe has grown to capture the essence of Tree as more than just a snobbish college girl, and Israel Broussard, although in a more muted role, still remains one of the most charismatic and gentle male characters in a slasher film that I can remember. Through its issues, just about the most you can ask out of a sequel is what Happy Death Day 2U ultimately delivers.