‘Happy Death Day 2U’ Romps Through Dimensions and Bloody Humor
“Happy Death Day 2U” is both a sequel and a wild reinvention. It’s surprisingly more entertaining than you would expect from the typical Blumhouse franchises that keep going and going. The original 2017 “Happy Death Day” was also a surprise, a kind of charming update of “Groundhog Day” and 80s college slasher B-movies. At the same time it satirized everything that’s crude, rude and absurd about modern-day college culture. The story followed a mean blonde named Tree (Jessica Rothe) as she died over and over again, awakening and repeating her birthday only to be slashed in the evening by a baby-mask wearing killer. While finding her killer, Tree slowly began to change her attitude. In this continuation director Christopher Landen turns the premise from a morality tale into sci-fi trip that loses the story’s essence but builds up an entertaining experience.
We open this time on Ryan (Phi Vu), who you may remember as the roommate of Carter (Israel Broussard), the nice guy who helped Tree find her killer in the first movie and became her boyfriend. Now Ryan is waking up over and over at Bayside University, on the day the previous film closed on and finding himself getting stabbed by the hooded assassin dressed like the campus mascot. Tree immediately realizes what’s happening and tries to help. But it turns out this could all be connected to a science project Ryan has been working on with classmates Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin), which consists of a device, the Sisyphus Quantum Cooling Reactor, meant to prove time can be slowed down to the molecular level. But while trying to fix the problem the college’s frustrated Dean Bronson (Steve Zissis), barges in and everything goes to hell. Tree is thrown into a parallel dimension where Carter is now dating her hated sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and even more astonishing, her mother is alive. Now Tree has to choose between going back to her actual dimension and staying in this one.
For the most part “Happy Death Day 2U” defines “entertaining” when it comes to a popcorn romp. It begins with an interesting premise, the idea of following someone else around as they endure a loop in time. But soon enough it becomes again all about Tree. The more personal effect of the first movie is ditched for something closer to the spirit of “Back to the Future Part II” (which is openly referenced at one point). Taken as pure, goofy sci-fi, it’s not that bad. Somehow Landen’s script manages to maneuver all the whacky threads, coincidences and time jumps. At times the film joyfully satirizes the premise of its predecessor. Tree has to start killing herself over and over, because every time she comes back it just takes too long to crack the formula to make the Sisyphus work. She soon resorts to jumping out of airplanes in her underwear, jumping into a grinder and drinking drano at the supermarket. There’s some great slapstick in these moments and Rothe is funny enough to make the gags work. In the first movie she was so entertaining because she was so unlikeable, strutting like the stereotypical entitled hot person. Now that she’s supposed to be nicer (as if that ever happens), the movie wisely puts her in a whole new challenge.
Unlike most college-based movies, the “Happy Death Day” films are genuinely hilarious without becoming raunch marathons. Like the first installment, this one gleefully mocks college culture, its mascots, campus life and the absurdity you find at times in sororities (Danielle boasts about helping special needs kids, even if they “hug you a little too long”). Landen skillfully recycles old teen movie tricks, like having Tree suddenly lose Carter to her bitter rival in a dimension. But these moments are not too corny. While this movie lacks the journey that made the original interesting, Landen makes a good move by throwing in Tree’s mom into the plot. Now that Tree has changed, the new choice she faces is remaining in an alternate reality where one of her great wishes has been granted, or returning to her regular world where she at least has Carter. This helps the movie still manage to be a little more than just a confusing experiment. The scenes between Tree and her mother have genuine heart, and a moment where they both blow out a birthday candle even comes close to being quite beautiful. Characters from the first movie, like the philandering professor Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken) return not just as mere cameos, but as players in this new variation of the plot.
The rest of “Happy Death Day 2U” rushes forward with the kind of wild twists and bloody turns we’ve come to expect from Blumhouse. The baby-faced killer still prowls the halls and it’s still fun trying to figure out who it might be this time. Even the ending is a better version of the Blumhouse tradition of closing a film with some kind of over the top reveal. Sensing this is the kind of premise that could easily run out of gas, going by the end credits scene it seems the next movie will go even further into the whole sci-fi, secret experiments angle. There is a scream in the end that is in the tradition of glorious, trashy 70s B-movies.
It can’t be said “Happy Death Day 2U” is a great movie, but it’s better than it should be. It knows it’s a gag and basks in its sense of fun. Even the violence is nearly absent, this movie would rather make you chuckle than gasp. Call it absurd, call it goofy, but it’s not exactly dumb, and it’s never a bore.
“Happy Death Day 2U” opens Feb. 13 in theaters nationwide.