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Happy Death Day 2U is a bigger, genre-bending sequel

Happy Death Day 2U is a bigger, genre-bending sequel

In 2017, audiences were pleased to find that Happy Death Day, a gimmicky horror film which looked on its surface to be just another entry in the canon of teen slashers, turned out to be something so much more. The script was airtight, hilarious, and provided an opportunity for a transcendent central performance from its star — something which very few films under the assumptive teen slasher umbrella can tout. It was a hit, so naturally, there was going to be a sequel. Director Christopher Landon (son of Michael Landon!) is back for round two, and this time he’s stepped into the role of writer as well. He’s already confirmed that he has a third chapter ready to go, and if Happy Death Day 2U is any indication, it could prove to be a truly bonkers trilogy. I am all in for it.

Returning as well is Jessica Rothe as Tree Gelbman, the unfortunate young woman doomed to repeating the last day of her life over and over again. At the end of the first movie (which you would do well to revisit), Tree has identified and eliminated her killer, as well as ended the time loop to which she was prisoner. She’s turned over a new leaf, eschewing her selfish ways, and has even found romance in the form of Carter (Israel Broussard), the young man who helped her get through not just a drunken evening, but the subsequent day of murder and mayhem and time travel. But just when she thinks that everything is hunky dory and the next day can finally begin, Carter’s roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) starts having a very similar experience. As the resident pro at this sort of thing, Tree gets involved, and soon finds herself testing the limitations of the space-time continuum on the whole.

Yeah, you read that right. Happy Death Day 2U minimizes the slasher aspects central to the first film and instead focuses on the more science fiction aspects of the Groundhog’s Day-esque storytelling device. Anyone who left the original film wondering why it was all happening will have their answer within the first 20 minutes of this entry, but those of us who really enjoyed the slasher aspects will have to do without. The whodunit angle is functionally meaningless here, but for my money it’s a decent trade off. If you’re making a sequel, you absolutely have to go bigger (it’s one of Randy’s rules, isn’t it?), and bigger is the name of the game here. As timelines collide and clever reveals start to pile up, it’s impressive to watch Landon’s script not just balance the behemoth plotting, but to cleverly tie in moments from the first film which seemed innocuous at the time (there’s no information as to how much of the original script was reworked with the idea of a sequel in mind, as the original draft was written nearly a decade prior to release). 

This film expressly embraces both the style and function of Back to the Future Part 2, and it also manages to make more direct references than this BTTF2 super fan could count (keep an eye open for “Biff’s Tree Service” - a double pun in function that I won’t spoil here). Much like Marty McFly’s middle chapter, this does feel written with a third entry in mind, which may be bothersome to some viewers. As with the Back to the Future series, the original production did not necessarily expect for a sequel to occur, and thus had to remain functional in a vacuum. By design, Happy Death Day 2U can’t do that, and the filmmakers know this. By leaning into the sci-fi/comedic/adventure angle and leaning away from the horror elements, there’s no limits to the ways in which this story can continue to be expounded upon in future entries.

Unfortunately, this means that the film doesn’t feel as tight as its predecessor. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the original Happy Death Day is that it has no fat on it. Every moment is in service of moving the plot forward or serving its unexpectedly nuanced characters. Since the sequel is very plot heavy, we lose that feeling pretty early on, and it affects the pacing. Even though it comes in a scant 4 minutes longer than the first film, this entry feels a lot longer for better or for worse. On the other hand, the plotting is so cleverly done that even the most enthusiastic continuity blooper chaser will likely have a hard time finding an error. And really, why would you want to? When it comes to fare like this, the name of the game is fun, and Happy Death Day 2U never stops being a wild ride.

Once again I find myself utterly stunned at how deeply felt of a performance Rothe gives here. In the same way that she sold an arc from selfish party girl to a generous, kind soul, she now sells another arc which, given the nature of the material, forces her to dig even deeper. Not only does she tap into the same reservoir of humor when she finds herself once again trapped in a single day (a goofy suicide montage is a tasteless, hilarious highlight), she also acquits herself quite well in carrying some decidedly heavy drama when Tree finds that her time loop predicament has much farther reaching consequences than she could have ever imagined. 

Across the board the performances are pitch perfect. Increasing the roster of players adds to the fun, and given how many different tweaks to, um, reality, the film plays with, padding out the cast is a necessity. Instead of just following Tree and her quest to survive, we are now following a crew of people working desperately to not just remain living, but to fix whatever cosmic disrepair has placed them in this unbelievable situation (I’m being as vague as humanly possible with the details — and succeeding, so don’t you worry about spoilers, friend). The aforementioned Ryan gets most of the screen time, which is great because he is consistently laugh-out-loud hilarious. At his side are the wonderful duo of Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin), two of Ryan’s classmates who would love to help with this situation, but also feel great concern that their academic careers could be threatened. They evoke laughs as a not-so-nerdy duo of nerds caught up in something much bigger than simple scholastics. Also returning is Tree’s fitness obsessed roommate Danielle (Rachel Matthews), who gets the chance to go big with some inspired goofiness.

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When the movie began, I had a misgiving that I very quickly threw out. You see, every time the day resets, so does the memory of everyone within it. At first it seems criminally easy for Tree  and Ryan to get everyone on board with their insane situations, but as the film unfolded I grew impressed with the silly/clever/knowing ways that the script skirts expositional issues in the name of fun. And really, would watching these people repeatedly explain themselves make for an exciting movie? No. The effort is there and that’s all I need. 

Happy Death Day 2U is sure to be a hit at the box office. Horror fans tend to show up, and it seems that the first film crossed over into mass appeal. I’ll happily watch another entry in this gleeful, now genre-less (or perhaps genre-stuffed?) franchise. Even though the horror elements have been minimized, had they been the focal point once again, this would’ve felt a lot more like a rehash than a sequel. And who wants to do the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over again??

Note: There’s a mid-credits stinger that you wont want to miss. There’s nothing after the credits. Also, if you like this movie, you should check out Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes. It shares the same playful sci-fi DNA. 

Happy Death Day 2U is now playing in Philly theaters.

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