From a purely business perspective, when a film that is said to have cost $4.8 million but grosses worldwide more than $122 million, you know there’s a sequel in the works, even if the story never required a second outing.
When Happy Death Day opened in 2017 with a cast of unknowns it came as a surprise. Who knew that a bloodless slasher flick that no one considered scary would become so popular? Yet its Groundhog Day meets Scream sensibilities turned the low-budget thriller into a hit, a big one.
The plot was simple. Its heroine, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) was repeatedly murdered by someone in a mask. Each morning she would wake up on campus and live the same day over and over until the killer’s identity was eventually discovered, stopping her repeated murders in the process. As an added bonus, the curiously named Tree – short for Theresa – redeemed herself, changing from the mean girl on campus to the nice one. Plus, she ended up with the nice guy, Carter (Israel Broussard) who wasn’t exactly a college nerd, but close.
Those prepped with how things worked for Tree will get the film’s opening in the sequel, only this time, instead of the girl having a literal deja-vu, it’s Ryan (Phi Vu). Remember him? He was Carter’s roommate in the first film, the one that kept walking into the dorm at the wrong moment. At the beginning of Happy Death Day 2U he wakes up, goes through the motions of the day, and is stabbed by someone in a mask, only to immediately wake up again, ready to face the same conflicts and to eventually get stabbed again.
But that’s just the beginning. Before you get lulled into a false sense of your own cinematic deja-vu but with a different lead, slow down. All the events of the first film happened the day before. The film has taken off at practically the same moment where the previous one completed. When Ryan tells his roommate Carter and his girlfriend Tree what’s now happening, instead of dismissing him as a nut, they know exactly what he’s talking about. Tree and Carter take the boy seriously. In a series of lightning speed flashbacks, they explain to him (and to those in the audience who may not have seen the original) what they’ve just gone through, and do what they can to catch Ryan’s killer. But nothing is as simple as that. And here’s where it does something that the first film never did – it gets complicated.
Unlike the first film that never actually explained why Tree was reliving the same day over and over, this one does, in a manner of speaking. It appears that Ryan and his nerdy Big Bang Theory associate students in the Quantum Mechanics Lab have been working on a science project. It’s a Caractucus Potts kind of machine that at the press of the Enter button is supposed to slow down time. But instead of slowing things down it created a time loop and sucked Tree into its system in the process. And it hasn’t stopped.
Somehow – and this where trying to explain things gets murky – because of a fault with the machine at the time when the students are trying to reverse the experiment, Tree is accidentally thrust into a parallel universe – or a multi-verse – where she’s still on campus and she knows the same people, but they’re different. The killer of the first film is now one of the nice girls, her boyfriend Carter is with someone else, and her mother, who had sadly passed away in the real world, is still alive in the parallel one. Plus, there’s still a killer in a mask on the lose; a new one. And at this point, even Doctor Who might be confused.
“This kind of reminds me of Back to The Future 2,” Carter tells Tree after she explains what has now happened to her. “Totally,” agrees Ryan. And he’s right, to a point. Like the sequel to the Michael J. Fox time-traveling adventure, Happy Death 2U is a mess. And the more it continues, the more it feels as though it’s about to unravel. But stick with it. Unlike Future 2, despite all the nonsense of multi-verses and role reversals and the bewilderment of occasionally trying to work out what characters are doing and why, somehow the film remains buoyant and generally keeps things fun.
Usually with horror sequels, the murder rates and the blood are jazzed up, but not with Happy Death 2U. Instead, the film actually downplays the grizzly knife attacks and amps up the two elements that worked so well in the first film – the humor and Jessica Rothe. As Tree, Rothe gave a knockout performance in the original, and here she’s equally good, still looking like Blake Lively’s talented younger sister but with more sass and energy.
While the humor never quite takes the overly self-consciously aware route of Scream, it still pokes fun at the horror conventions, and much is funny. But in the way that Star Trek fans often refer to something called the Star-Trek-V-Conundrum where the follow up to the adventure about rescuing the whales tried too hard to make the humor in IV work even more in the next one, Happy Death Day 2U occasionally makes the same mistake. There’s a sequence where student Danielle (Rachel Matthews, the late Michael Landon’s granddaughter) pretends she’s blind in order to distract the college dean (Steve Ziss) resulting with lots of smashed glass and a bloody nose for the dean. It’s a scene from a different film. It oversteps its reach. Those who turned up looking for scares among the thrills and finding their tolerance level already tested will probably give up at this point. But again, stick with it. Tree’s string of creatively absurd suicides meant to speed up a process of formula elimination – don’t ask – and played against Paramore’s 2017 pop/rock hit Hard Times is laugh-out-loud funny, as long as you’re attuned to sick humor.
There’s a mid-end credit sequence that’s worth staying for with a funny payoff that feels like a put-on at the expense of all those superhero movies, the kind that ends as a tease for a future chapter. Here, the brief episode would seem all the funnier if it was there just as a joke, but director Christopher Landon has already announced his intention for a third outing, meaning the tease is for real. If there’s to be a Happy Death Day 3, let’s hope it learns from the errors of 2; don’t make it messy, keep the humor but hold the slapstick. Isn’t that how Back To The Future 3 redeemed itself?
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 100 Minutes