Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

FEBRUARY 9, 2019


"I pray neither [Director Chris Landon] or anyone else messes things up with "Happier Death Day" or whatever."

That's the closing line of my review of the original Happy Death Day, and well... here we are. I got the title wrong, but Landon did indeed return for Happy Death Day 2U, which also reunites the entire original cast (save for a few one-sceners from the original like the cop who pulled Tree over for speeding) and picks up immediately where it left off. Luckily I was also wrong about how good it might be - it's not AS good as the surprisingly great original, and it barely even qualifies as a slasher movie this time around (more on that soon), but it's inventive and fun, and equally charming while also tugging at the heartstrings a bit, more than making up for the reduced novelty factor in the process.

(There are spoilers for the first third of the new film ahead, as well as for the entire original, so if you want to go in blind I'd skip this review, but if you haven't seen the original yet I IMPLORE you to do so before you watch the new film as it will not only be harder to follow, but you won't get nearly as much out of it on an emotional or comedic level).

The hardest part about sequels - especially to films as high concept as the original HDD - is that you usually have to focus on one aspect that made the original so memorable and enhance that (while introducing new elements), or else you end up with a glorified remake by trying to just do the same thing again. Given the way the original worked, Christopher Landon (who wrote solo this time around; the original screenplay was credited to Scott Lobdell, who is not involved with the followup) had a few options: take a page from the Final Destinations and introduce a new cast with someone else stuck in a similar situation, ditch the "Groundhog Day" element and make a more traditional slasher, or dive deep into the sci-fi stuff and background the killings that won't really matter anyway? If you've seen the trailer you'd know that he opted for the third choice, coming up with a film that has more DNA with Back to the Future II and My Science Project than Halloween II or whatever else you might have assumed it'd be compared to.

As I said, even though it's been a year and a half for us the movie doesn't jump forward in time - it actually starts a few minutes earlier than the end of the first, showing Ryan (Carter's clueless roommate) making his way from his car back to his dorm room, with just enough notable encounters (a barking dog, a near-miss with a skateboarder, etc) to give us the idea that maybe he will be stuck in a loop now. But now we learn more about him - he's a science major and working on some kind of energy machine in the campus' incredibly large lab, much to the chagrin of the dean who is trying to shut down the experiment. After we run through all of this setup, Babyface returns and kills him, at which point he wakes up in his car again and runs through the routine.

But this is, of course, the NEXT day, the one where Tree has finally escaped her loop, so when Ryan enters the room and starts asking about deja vu, she instantly realizes what is going on and together they figure out that his experiment must have been what caused her time loop in the first place. Things are further complicated when the three of them catch Ryan's killer and discover it's... Ryan? Yes, somehow the machine caused two parallel universes to overlap, putting two Ryans in one world in a variation on the butterfly effect, but in an attempt to fix that timeline Tree ends up getting sent back to "her" day again, where Carter doesn't really know her yet and her roommate is still alive and trying to kill her. Or is she?

It takes a bit, but Tree eventually realizes that while she is back to reliving that Monday/her birthday, it's one from one of those parallel universes, so things are slightly different. Her roommate is NOT trying to kill her this time (in fact she's carrying on the affair with the doctor, who doesn't even know who Tree is in this scenario), and Danielle is a nicer person - in fact so nice she's actually dating Carter, which naturally makes Tree even more desperate to get the hell back to her own timeline. But then she finds out about another thing that's different, and suddenly her choice isn't so easy - Carter aside, this world seems to be a better one for her, with the added bonus of no one trying to kill her. Don't worry, dark comedy fans - she still dies a lot in the film, but it's a plot motivated reason as opposed to failed attempts to outrun a masked killer.

As you might have gleamed from that information, the slasher element is heavily backgrounded this time, to the point where it barely even matters. The subplot about Ryan's killer is finished once Tree goes back a day and starts going through that one again, and in that universe the killer isn't really concerned with her (though they cross paths, naturally). Given the nature of the film's plot, there's very little wiggle room to introduce new characters, and even by this high-concept movie's standards it'd be a stretch to think someone else wanted to kill this version of Tree, so there's only a few chase/slasher kind of scenes, with long stretches in between them to boot. It's a character driven followup, which is rare for any genre but especially horror - it'd be like if Halloween II followed Laurie Strode's attempts to readjust to the world while Myers was just off chasing someone else most of the time.

So if you're only here for the horror, you're going to be disappointed. However, if you're one of those folks who walked out of the first movie wondering how it is she got stuck in a loop in the first place, you'll be delighted to know that this movie answers that question, with at least three scenes of a science student explaining science-y concepts to the clueless Tree (including one with everyone's favorite: someone poking a hole through a piece of paper). And if you loved Jessica Rothe as Tree, you'll be even happier - despite the Ryan-centric opening scene she's still very much front and center, and it's incredibly satisfying to watch her continue her personal journey in an organic way. The film's funniest sequence comes rather early, when she first wakes up in the day again and storms her way through the now familiar gauntlet, screaming at everyone and everything ("SPRINKLERS!") while a very confused Carter and Ryan follow behind her. Once again they use the "every time she dies her body gets weaker" subplot to give it some tension (though as with the original there's no real consistency to it - one day she's passing out from the damage her body is incurring, the next she's fully functional and just sort of worried about it), and it really works - Rothe totally sells the conflict of not knowing if this next death might be her last while also trying to make sure everyone is saved.

The stuff with the dean is kind of a misstep, however. It just adds a complication in a film that didn't really lack for them, and results in a lengthy chunk of the third act being devoted to our heroes trying to get the machine back from his office and into the lab so they could run one final test. There's some really bad comedy in there involving Danielle and there's no real tension to derive from it - we know damn well they're going to get it back, so why even bother with any of this? The experiment failing and/or Tree having to reset one last time to save this or that person gives it the stakes it needs to be engaging, so I don't know why we had to be subjected to this silliness, especially when it means less time spent on making the new slasher storyline more involving. Perhaps if they opted to let the Babyface catch on to the loop (let's not forget, they're actually completely separate elements even in the original) and make THAT the thing that threatens their ability to get the machine up and running, it'd be less of a departure (and simply be more satisfying, though if you're amused by Danielle and the Dean's antics I'm sure you'll be happy either way).

Otherwise, it's better than it has any right to be, and as a bonus it makes for a great double feature. Even though a year and change has gone by with this young cast, they do a great job with the makeup to look like no time has passed (and yes, Tree finally breaks down and yells about how sick of that shirt she is), so take that, Halloween II! But more importantly, the script has a number of payoffs and jokes that work much better with a fresh and thorough memory of the original - we watched them back to back at the Egyptian for this special event (with Rothe and Landon doing Q&A in between) and more than once there was a moment that I can guarantee wouldn't have landed as well had I just gone off my 16 month old memory of the first film. So I highly encourage a refresher if you have the time, in order to get the most out of it. And stick in your seats through the credits for a setup for a third film (pay close attention - there's an obvious "this is what HDD3 would be about" part, but a much more subtle hint about what it could REALLY be about), which I'll happily see just to enjoy Rothe's performance for another two hours, though I wouldn't be surprised if it drops the slasher element entirely by then.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. It was smart to change the genre. I like my slasher movies gory so if the PG 13 rating prevent them to take that direction, I'd prefer them to go to the opposite one. The killer reveal is as bland as in the first one but I didn't care because this was not the center of the movie. Jessica Rothe is so great. She really makes those emotional moments work much better than they should. And just so you know, the director completely rewrote the script of the 1st movie (he just kept the core idea) but the WGA decided not to credit him, much to his regret.


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