2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Jessica Rothe | directed by Christopher Landon | 1 hr 40 mins | Halloween Horrorfest 2019 # 2
Most sequels, as good as they may be, usually have a weight hanging around them by simply not being as surprising and original as the original. That’s not the case with Happy Death Day 2 U, the sequel to Blumehouse’s PG-13 slasher hit Happy Death Day, a slasher movie version of time loop films Groundhog Day, Timecrimes or Triangle that didn’t quite connect in the thrills department. 2 U builds wonderfully off of the original film like a true 2nd part and, completely unfettered by table-setting of a first film, takes the money and runs into wild, wacky territory. Put this on your list of sequels that are better than the original. It’s a blast.
When we last saw college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) she had competed her arc from bad girl to growing a heart and defeated her time loop trap by unmasking the baby-masked killer who kept ending her day and kicking her roommate out a dorm window. Now it’s Ryan’s (Phil Vu) turn. Ryan, we first met as the interrupting roommate of Tree’s now boyfriend Carter (Israel Brousard), the bed of which Tree keeps waking up in after a night of drinking. Having mastered the time loop trap before, Tree hops to his help but even more interesting, learns that Ryan and a small team of physics students built a time-altering proton machine in the school lab that created Tree’s time loop. When the Dean comes to shut everything down – as Dean’s tend to do – an explosion sends Tree back into another time loop – but with some significant changes. 2 U takes all of the little things the first film did right and amps them up. That movie eschewed slasher tropes with a supernatural twist, a colorful daylight visual style, an far-from-virginal anti-heroine who was a rotten person and a cartoonish sense of humor. The sequel has all of this cranked up to an 11.
What in Happy Death Day was left as vague and mysterious as it was in Groundhog Day leaving us to believe that Tree’s time loop was some sort of natural phenomenon associated with her birthday is now given a tangible scientific explanation. That by itself doesn’t make the story better, but it does give the movie a gallery of rules to play with. With rules we get a tangible problem to work through and countdowns to race against. 2 U blows through genre boundaries with each new reveal, mixing horror, sci-fi, mystery and comedy with it’s Looney Tunes’ death sequences. It also retroactively explains the first film down to the school’s power outages. It doesn’t recycle it’s character beats, charging into a new adventure and for a time loop film it has so much going on that it never feels repetitive. Director Christopher Landon is juggling a lot and making it all work by leaning into the wackiness of it all.
Like the first film, the biggest reason 2 U works is Jessica Rothe’s terrific performance. Tree is a great character full of agency who is now so confident in her abilities, so willing to die with style to save her friends and restart the day and so often ahead of everyone else that facing distortions in time and space are about the only worthy foe for her. Many of the other actors here aren’t up to par, but it doesn’t matter, this is Rothe’s movie and she’s diving in 110% with a charmingly cynical personality and a wild-eyed rubber-faced performance that drives the film. The movie is a lot richer than the first because it fleshes out Carter’s inner circle into an ensemble piece that Tree still doesn’t quite fit into as well as exploring her family dynamic in a surprisingly resonant way.
Happy Death Day 2 U is one of the most low-key fun movies I’ve seen all year. A sequel not made for a general audience by people who don’t seem to care if it might be too silly for mass marketing and distribution. Is it silly? Absolutely. The ending is completely ridiculous. And so was Gremlins 2, a high-water mark for cartoonish cult sequels that 2 U recalls in it’s most self-referential moments. Many sequels are unnecessary, 2U is very necessary, not just building on the first film but retroactively adding lore to it as if it was all planned out like this from the beginning. Solidifying Tree and her time-jumping, serial-killer fighting posse as a group I’d like to see again. A slasher movie hasn’t been this much fun since the Scream series. Highly recommended.