Released in 2017, “Happy Death Day” offers up a wonderfully funny “Groundhog Day”-esque take on a serial killer story. An insufferable college student, Tree (Jessica Rothe), is forced to relive a day over and over again as a killer in a baby face mask (it’s the school mascot) kills her anywhere and everywhere over and over again. Tree’s task, she decides with some help, is simple — to survive the day and to do that, she must figure out who it is that is killing her.
The first movie being successful, we are now getting the inevitable sequel, with Tree again finding herself in the midst of a looping day and trying to work out exactly what is happening this time. Of course, because it’s a sequel, things get broadened and deepened — while the first movie is not particularly concerned with how Tree ended up in this predicament, the second explains it… and it also throws her into a different universe. These differences subtract from the story, as does the film’s increased focus on comedy and decreased focus on horror, but (not to cut the review short) there is still enough about “Happy Death Day 2 U” that it works more than it doesn’t.
Fans of the original movie will be treated to the return of Tree’s trip through the quad on her walk of shame; Lori (Ruby Modine) preparing for her double shift at the hospital; discussions of sorority house meetings with Danielle (Rachel Matthews); her spotting Greg (Charles Aitken) and his wife, Stephanie (Laura Clifton), and her feeling shameful; and the all-important return of Carter’s roommate, Ryan (Phi Vu). This last actually becomes the most important bit as it is Ryan’s science project, which he has been working on alongside new characters Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Andrea (Sarah Yarkin), that seems to be to blame for all of Tree’s time looping troubles.
Written and directed by Christopher Landon, “Happy Death Day 2 U” actually features a scene in which Carter (Israel Broussard) and Tree debate whether or not there being a scientific explanation for the time loop lessens the impact of what she learned from it last time out (to be a good human being). It is a conversation which solely exists to convince the audience that providing the explanation ought not diminish the franchise.
Of course, it does diminish the franchise, particularly as it is a ludicrous half-explanation that is as unsatisfying as it is unnecessary. This change helps propel the film into comedy and allows for the addition of new character Dean Roger Bronson (Steve Zissis). Zissis is funny, but the character presents a complication that the film never resolves in satisfactory fashion.
Consciously, the movie is leaning into the “Back to the Future” franchise here, particularly “Part II” of Marty McFly’s story, and offers up more than a few references (both big and small). These moments are amusing and work far better than the undergraduates-make-scientific-device-that-no-undergraduate-would-have-made tale offered. The basic concept of the alternate universe that spawns from the device, works as well, and poses some interesting challenges for Tree, but it still represents a weird, not entirely satisfying, turn.
One of the most important aspects of the original “Happy Death Day” is that Tree changes over the course of the film — by living the same day over and over again, she learns to be a better person. There is no character growth here in the sequel. Tree may change her mind about how to proceed at certain moments, but that doesn’t feel like growth as much as it does an abrupt decision to do something different.
There is no doubt that the previous film is better than this entry. However, Rothe is still marvelous in the role and the concept is still enjoyable enough that, to repeat myself à la Tree, it works more often than it doesn’t. This is just more of a standard sort of a film rather than being as truly impressive as the first. This reviewer has never thought of “Back to the Future Part III” as anything more than the most disappointing entry in that franchise, but perhaps the inevitable third entry here will do better.
photo credit: Universal Pictures