Director: Christopher Landon
Writer: Christopher Landon
Producer: Jason Blum
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Rachel Matthews, Suraj Sharma, Charles Aitken, Phi Vu, Ruby Modine, Steve Zissis, Sarah Yarkin, Laura Clifton, Missy Yager
After the cause of the original time loop is uncovered, Tree Gelbman finds herself reliving her death day once again, but on an alternate timeline.
Two things are essential to know before tuning in to “Happy Death Day 2U’s” peculiarly fluctuating frequency.
First, familiarity with “Happy Death Day” (review here) plays a key role in squeezing maximum entertainment value out of the follow-up, arguably more so than any other predecessor/sequel pairing. A breathless “Friday the 13th”-style recap conveniently condenses the first film’s 96 minutes into a 30-second montage. Still, it would be incredibly difficult to keep up with recurring characters and events if you’re otherwise in the dark regarding what came before. Refreshing your memory with a recent re-watch is additionally recommended, as it will amplify appreciation for the painstaking detail that went into recreating costumes, sets, and staging to look exactly like everything did last time.
But the most important thing to acknowledge is that whereas “Happy Death Day” was a snarky slasher whodunit, “Happy Death Day 2U” is a fully comedic sci-fi caper movie. Off the top of my head, I’m having a hard time thinking of a “horror” franchise, if that term even fits this series anymore, that saw this wild of a shift in tone from one installment to the next. The disparate direction won’t be everyone’s cup of chamomile, for good reason, but bracing expectations for the impact may at least prevent whiplash from exacerbating negative reactions.
Remember Carter’s roommate Ryan? The guy who barged in on Tree’s ordeal every morning by crudely asking if Carter had tapped that “fine vagine?” In a move that’s actually ingenious, “Happy Death Day 2U” plucks this negligible nobody, whose only purpose was to facilitate a repeating gag, out of background obscurity and catapults him into a major player.
It turns out Ryan is a science student at Bayfield University. Partnering with classmates Samar and a redundant girl whose name we only know from end credits, Ryan developed a quantum reactor to experiment with pausing time. It’s his device that has been causing rolling blackouts across campus, much to irritable Dean Bronson’s fist-shaking chagrin.
In the first of the film’s controversial creative choices, Ryan’s reactor also ends up identified as the cause of Tree’s time-loop conundrum. Rarely does the tactic of retroactively writing an origin story pay off. Just ask the stakeholders who made a mess out of Michael Myers’ mystique starting in 1981. Nevertheless, “Happy Death Day 2U” risks jumping the shark on only its second wave by offering an explanation audiences weren’t quite clamoring for.
If you’re peeved that the sequel provides a pseudo-science rationale for how “Happy Death Day” happened, you’re not alone. Tree can’t hide her disappointment that a laboratory fluke, not the necessity for emotional closure over her mother’s death, compelled her to become a better person by dying 11 times. She has more immediate worries however. The two key killers from “Happy Death Day” remain dead, but there’s a new masked menace on the loose. Curiously, this murderer couldn’t care less about Tree. Babyface part deux wants Ryan to receive the business end of a blade.
Ryan doesn’t remain the focal point for long. Being as vague as possible to sidestep spoilers, Ryan activates his reactor to deal with his own repeating death day. This has the unanticipated side effect of forcing Tree to yet again relive the terrible time loop she thought she left behind yesterday.
Except this timeline seems different. New beau Carter now dates flighty sorority sister Danielle. Lori appears confused at the mention of cupcakes. Tree is still Tree, but this is not the same Monday the 18th she lived through a dozen times before.
Finding herself inexplicably transported to an alternate dimension, Tree not only has to unmask a new Babyface killer, she has to find a way back to her rightful reality. To do that, she needs Ryan and his ragtag team of science nerds to work their reactor magic. Trouble is, while Tree remembers what happened each time she repeats her new death day, everyone else starts from scratch. Tree needs to step up her mathematics and her memory if she wants to avoid the killer and return home. And when the new timeline presents a possibility she cannot have in her dimension, she has to choose if she even wants to return to her reality at all.
Here’s something I really like about how writer/director Christopher Landon, taking creative reins entirely from previous scripter Scott Lobdell, snaps fingers at his own script. Keeping the pace perpetually peppy, Ryan, Carter and company never waste time questioning Tree’s crazy claims. Obviously, she gets everyone up to speed about new time-loop revelations offscreen. As far as Tree is concerned though, you have to imagine that her story about repeating deaths, masked murderers, and exploding quantum reactors grows crazier and crazier each time she tells it. And yet everyone she tells it to is always immediately eager to try sending her back to the future.
Speaking of Marty McFly and Doc Brown, Bear McCreary intentionally composes many music cues to echo Alan Silvestri’s “Back to the Future” scores. The parallels ring repeated bells in ways that are overtly, maybe even obnoxiously, humorous as much as they are earnest homage. They may as well have cut to end credits on a Huey Lewis song while they were at it.
This brings me to something perplexing about how Christopher Landon directs his movie. “Happy Death Day 2U” overloads on questionably placed comedy that goes so far over the top, it does a 360-degree loop and comes back around to quizzical looks on the faces of viewers who thought they were in for a thriller.
Which isn’t to say that “Happy Death Day 2U” doesn’t have plentiful thrills, chills, and spills. It’s just that its style drowns in a sea of slapstick, pratfalls, and exaggerated outrageousness that would better fit an “I Love Lucy” rerun than a sequel to a slasher, even one that wasn’t 100% serious to begin with.
Steve Zissis as the bug-eyed “I’m gonna git you kids!” dean and Rachel Matthews as Danielle straight up mimic a Three Stooges routine in their Merry Melodies-inspired scene together. Tree’s bikini skydiving sequence punctuates itself with a moment manufactured just for laughs at the expense of exclaiming, “plausibility is going out a fourth floor window and we are not remotely worried about it.”
When the movie ended, my girlfriend remarked that she identified the new killer immediately. Not because she tried to, but because there were so few suspects, only one possibility made sense. Myself, I was so distracted by the heist orchestrated to rob the dean’s office, the ongoing hijinx of Ryan’s wack pack, and Tree’s assorted asides of organizing affairs with her parents, sorority sisters, and everyone else, I flat out forgot there was a killer yet to be unmasked in the movie.
While weird creative choices can be questioned, something not up for debate is Jessica Rothe earning her second straight MVP trophy as the undisputed standout. Predominantly burdened with an awful lot of manic buffoonery, Rothe gets to do authentic acting in scenes where she only interacts with Tree’s mother. One moment in particular is a complete audition reel in just two minutes, exceptionally showcasing Rothe’s full range of extraordinary emotive talents. If the overall movie had a similar handle on appropriately adjusting hectic temperatures, it might not seem so all over the place.
In addition to ‘The Explanation Problem’ of Landon’s script thinking it needs to build a sequel by finagling the first film’s fiction, “Happy Death Day 2U” resorts to some tired tricks like a hand on a shoulder jump scare and a villain doing a slow clap “bravo!” when Tree finally ties up loose ends. A number of things aren’t quite “right” about the movie, yet that doesn’t make it any easier to quantify with a numeric value.
I suspect that my 65/100 score could change by 20 points in either direction depending on the mood of a given day. Did “Happy Death Day 2U” entertain me? Mostly, although some of that has to do with how impressive I found its chutzpah to be. The constant complainer in me who wants to see bold inventiveness in genre films commends the creators for having the guts to risk an uncharted course. The fan of the first film who wanted a second serving isn’t sure they made the correct call by teetering the totter away from horror and toward humor.
We’ll certainly see a third “Happy Death Day” at some point. Where it goes is for anyone to guess, probably including the series’ stewards. It remains to be seen if they inadvertently Halloween II’ed themselves into a continuity corner where they’ll be chasing fractured fiction with future installments. Then again, given Blumhouse’s history with “Halloween” (review here), we could see a retconned reboot of “Happy Death Day 2U” in 40 years time.
Review Score: 65