Happy Death Day 2U

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/12/19 13:33:14

"Doing It To Death"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When the original “Happy Death Day” came out in 2017, it was obviously better than most of the horror schlock ground out by Blumhouse Productions over the last few years but not quite good enough to fully recommend. The conceit of the film—a goofball fusion of “Groundhog Day” and your standard-issue college campus-based mad slasher exercise—was certainly intriguing but the screenplay never quite lived up to the promise of the premise as it grew a little repetitive at times (and not just in the intentional ways) and didn’t quite stick the ending. At the same time, however, it was made with a lot of style and a refreshing sense of humor that stressed the absurdity of the whole situation over endless sprays of blood and, best of all, it contained an undeniably winning and hugely entertaining performance from relatively unknown actress Jessica Rothe in the central role. It was a miss, I suppose, but it was the nearest of possible misses and when the news was announced that a sequel was being hustled into production after its predecessor proved to be a big hit, I found myself actually looking forward to it despite the fact that rushed sequels to horror films, especially ones with stories that don’t seem to obviously lend themselves to the franchise treatment, usually leads to artistic doom. Happily, “Happy Death Day 2U” is far more than just a lazy bit of hackwork hoping to exploit the goodwill engendered by its predecessor to squeeze a few more bucks out of the gullible. Instead, this is a smashingly entertaining film that retains all the stuff that worked the first time around while improving on the stuff that didn’t quite click. The end result is so good that even if you missed the first one, there is still a pretty good chance that you will have a blast here.

For those of you who missed the first one, perhaps a bit of a recap is in order. As the film opens, self-centered sorority girl Tree Gelbman (Rothe) wakes up with a massive hangover in the dorm room bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), a nice guy fellow student that she barely knows. We follow Tree over the course of the ensuing day, which also happens to be her birthday, as blows off a phone call from her dad, gets into it with roommate Lori (), meets up with the married professor () that she is having an affair with and heads off to a campus party that she never arrives at due to being stabbed to death by an attacker wearing a mask of the campus mascot, a creepy baby. After being killed, she wakes up again in Carter’s bed and finds herself going through the same events again but while she changes her route to the party so that she makes it there safely, she ends up being murdered there by the same attacker and everything starts all over again. It transpires that Tree has somehow found herself in a time loop and is cursed to relive the day over and over until she is able to use the knowledge that she gains from each iteration to finally unmask and stop her assailant. At the same time that she is trying to avoid being slaughtered, she begins to learn some hard truths about herself and starts trying to be a better person and even finds herself developing feelings for Carter, whom she ordinarily would never have given the time of day to in her earliest incarnation. Although no concrete explanation for her cosmic distress was ever given, she is eventually able to stop her attacker (who I won’t reveal, though the trailer for the sequel certainly gives it away), break the cycle and settle into a happier and less self-absorbed life with new love Carter.

(Although I plan to be as vague as humanly possible in describing the premise of “Happy Death Day 2U,” those of you who want to go into it as fresh as possible are advised to skip the next paragraph entirely.)

The sequel picks up the next day and follows Ryan (Phi Vu), Carter’s roommate, as he wakes up in his car, heads back to the dorm, where he is chased away by the snuggling Carter and Tree, and then goes to the science lab where he and classmates Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Anna (Sarah Bennani) are working on something big. Unfortunately for them, this big project runs afoul of the imperious Dean Bronson (Steve Zissis), who shuts the whole thing down. Then, to make matters worse, he starts getting weird texts that lure him into a nearby lab where he is, you guessed it, stabbed to death by a baby-masked killer before waking up to relive everything again. When he mentions this case of extreme deja vu to Carter and Tree, the latter recognizes the signs of a time loop and the two tag along with him to try to protect him. They do manage to unmask the attacker but it turns out to be. . . well, it turns out to be weird. This leads to a chain of circumstances that seems to end up with Tree being transported back to the day before to once again endlessly relive her birthday and dodge a murderer. However, Tree quickly realizes that things are different this time around and has to work around the new circumstances, such as Carter apparently dating her hated sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), while Ryan and his friends try to set things right and put her back where she belongs. Of course, she still has to die each go around in order to reset the day and her body can only take so much more of that and she soon makes a discovery that leads her to question whether she actually wants to go back to how things were or not.

To make a sequel to a film like “Happy Death Day” requires the filmmakers to accomplish two key things if they are to even hope of coming up with a successful work. For starters, while it was oddly refreshing that the original never explained the mechanic of how Tree ended up in her particular time loop in the first place, a sequel is almost obligated to give at least some explanation, no matter how goofy, as to how it all came about. More importantly, they have to figure out a way of taking its ingenious original premise and rejigger it just enough so that it doesn’t just feel like a total rehash of the earlier events. Without giving anything away, Christopher Landon, who returns as director and who has also taken over screenwriting duties this time around, has managed to clear both of those hurdles with surprising ease. The loop explanation is, inevitably, insane but it is handled in such a low-key manner that shies away from overdoing it that it turns out to be reasonably satisfactory. As for avoiding the repetition, Landon has taken from the playbooks of such notable sequels as “Back to the Future II” (which gets an explicit shout-out) and “Gremlins 2: The Next Day” by taking all of the gimmicks, motifs and plot developments from the first one and scrambling them up into new and generally ingenious ways that spin the story off into new directions. To give but one vague example, while there is still a baby-masked killer on the loose, they are pushed more to the sidelines this time around once Tree realizes that when it comes time to reset the day, she can just kill herself instead of going off to be murdered over and over. (There is even a montage of her various suicides that is obviously reminiscent of the similar sequence in “Groundhog Day” but the demises are so hilariously inspired that it is easy to forgive the scene’s copycat nature.)

The best thing about “Happy Death Day 2U,” as it turns out, is the same thing that helped the original work to the degree that it did and that is the performance by Jessica Rothe as Tree. Considering the arc that her character went through the first time around, from campus mean girl into someone who ultimately learns to shed her formerly bitchy ways and transform into a genuinely nice person, it would seem that she would not have anywhere further to take the character a second time around. As it turns out, that proves not to be the case. As before, she is a lot of fun to watch and demonstrates a nicely snarky sense of humor that meshes perfectly with the more oddball aspects of the story. At the same time, there are certain developments that take her and the role into trickier emotional waters and she is just as effective in those scenes as well. Granted, one doesn’t necessarily go to genre films of this sort looking for anything even remotely resembling great acting but this really is a great performance, the kind that makes you instantly eager to see anything that she turns up in next. In fact, the discovery that she is the star of the seemingly unnecessary upcoming remake of the 80s cult classic “Valley Girl” has made that project look a lot more interesting to me.

“Happy Death Day 2U” is not just the rare genre sequel that tops its predecessor, it is good enough to make me want to go back and look at the original “Happy Death Day” again to see if my problems with it have dissipated over time. Actually, to call it a “genre film” may seem like a disservice because it accomplishes its goals with a lot more skill and intelligence that many ostensibly more serious-minded movies of late that you or I could mention. If all movies were as effortlessly entertaining as this one, this particular cinematic timeline would be a lot easier for all of us to bear. Besides, any film of this sort that busts out a Lyle Swann reference is okay in my book and if you recognize that particular name without looking it up, it may prove to be okay in your book as well.

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