Happy Death Day 2U sidelines the slasher elements for a wackier, funnier, and poignant sequel
It’s always a fun surprise when a B-movie surpasses your expectations, and one of the best examples of this from the past few years is the charming slasher comedy Happy Death Day. Taking the repeating day premise from Groundhog Day and injecting it into a sorority killer comedy, Christopher Landon’s riff on the cyclical nature of the horror genre cheekily became a cult favorite due to a smart script and a brilliant lead performance from Jessica Rothe. That the film would garner a sequel should go without saying; it was a low budget hit that left behind many unanswered questions surrounding Rothe’s character Tree being stuck in a time loop. Despite this, I found myself questioning the need for a follow-up, as too often movies with a satirical bent overstay their welcome if they turn into franchises.
Boy, was I wrong.
Happy Death Day 2U, a more sci-fi focused parody that sees Tree sucked into a loop that this time also happens to trap her in a parallel universe, is pretty much the perfect sequel. It’s a film that doubles down on what made its predecessor work and addresses what didn’t, embracing its kooky DNA to turn out an endlessly fun, admirably different work. Looking to Back to the Future II as an inspiration, Landon takes the already proven formula of the first film and subtly tweaks it while simultaneously throwing every idea he has against the wall and hoping it sticks. It largely works, and even when it doesn’t the overarching fun is so infectious that it’s easy to dismiss the shortcomings.
Like other recent genre movie surprises (here’s looking at you, Alita and John Wick), this is a movie that lives and dies by its world-building, focusing on how goofball Ryan (Phi Vu), the roommate of Tree’s boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard), has altered time with an ill-advised science experiment. The slasher elements of the first film are largely pushed aside here to create a fully realized canon that lets the film re-contextualize the first entry whilst bringing something fresh to the table. Pure horror films are admittedly going to be a bit disappointed, as the serial killer drive is secondary to the sci-fi at play, using it more as way to create tension as opposed to being its focus. However, that shift is what gives the film some of its most entertaining moments, from a hilarious suicide montage to some genuinely exciting moments of timeline overlap and subversion.
As was the case with the first film, a lot of the joy comes from watching Rothe have an absolute blast as Tree. Bordering on completely unhinged but always hilariously human and sympathetic, Rothe is given a lot to do but never loses sight of what makes the role such a thrill to play. She gets the opportunity to run the gamut and do everything: snide, badass, emotionally vulnerable, you name it. Regardless of what’s she being asked to do, Rothe proves she’s already a certified pro in her young career; there’s not a single moment where she doesn’t make Tree believable, whether she’s on the verge of a breakdown or fighting to survive.
Rothe’s dynamic performance brings up perhaps the most surprising element of this entry, which is its shockingly poignant dramatic moments. While there were glimpses of an aching heart underneath Tree’s icy exterior in the first film, the pain of her backstory is fully fleshed out into a moral dilemma here, giving the film a weight that most horror films only dream of, let alone a parody of the genre. To go into detail about brings out this dramatic nuance would be to spoil the central conflict of the film, but it’s a stunningly intelligent progression for Tree’s arc that cements the film as a work that’s keenly aware of the legacy of its predecessor and takes appropriate steps to honor it while pushing it in a new direction.
Ultimately Happy Death Day 2U is perhaps freshest surprise of the weirdly good early 2019 film season, a smorgasbord of genres that comes together to create an always entertaining, sneakily emotional and intelligent B-movie sequel that stands tall alongside other giants of the horror parody subgenre. In some ways it even surpasses its wildly fun predecessor, elevating the antics of that film into something bigger and more meaningful than it has any right to be. In a time sequels feel increasingly lazy, what more could you ask for than one takes its original premise and cranks it up to eleven?