Happy Death Day 2U is the cleverly titled sequel to the surprise 2017 hit Happy Death Day. That film wisely combined the usual trappings of the slasher genre with the premise of Groundhog Day (1993), creating a fresh take on the horror-comedy genre. For those who have seen the original film, the idea of a sequel may have seemed silly considering not only how the narrative seemed neatly tied up, but also for the fact that the filmmakers nailed such a tricky premise so well that it may be asking for trouble to try to make lightening strike twice. Yet here we are, and while the sequel shines bright in quite a few areas, the limitations of the premise is starting to show and really leads to wonder where this potential franchise can go from here.
The opening of the film focuses on Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), who appears to be stuck in a time loop. Everyday, he sees Deja Vu play out in front of him, until the end of the day where he’s killed by a masked murderer, and immediately wakes up to start the day over again. He reveals this to his roommate Carter (Israel Broussard) and Carter’s girlfriend Tree (Jessica Rothe). Seeing as Tree experienced the exact same time loop in the original film, she immediately takes action to figure out how this could possibly happen again. This leads to the discovery that Ryan and his fellow classmates have been working on a quantum science experiment, and that their actions inadvertently caused the time loop. Credit has to be given to the film for choosing a unique opening to the story – instead of simply having the story start with Tree off the bat, who we’re already familiar with, the film puts focus on supporting players such as Ryan and his inner circle of science nerds. It’s solid world-building while also expanding the amount of cast members we get to know.
As Tree and company attempt to find the identity of this new killer while figuring out how to close the loop, she ends up back in the time loop herself. But as opposed to the original film, where the day keeps repeating on a reality she already knows, she discovers that she’s in an alternate timeline where some things in her life have changed for the worse while one very important detail changes for the better. It’s difficult to discuss this aspect of the film without getting in to spoilers, but in the vein of many similar time travel stories, Tree is faced with a dilemma between choosing the version of reality she already knows or the alternate world where her greatest wishes may be fulfilled. This portion of the film is where the narrative shines best, forcing Tree to make choices that will ultimately determine how she grows and how we view her character. The key to the first film is how it upended the promiscuous drunk girl slasher trope, giving its character a level of sympathy and a chance for redemption that is not afforded to more straight-forward representations of these archetypes in other films. Wisely, the sequel not only builds off of Tree’s original growth, but allows us to see how that growth mattered and how it will inform her decision-making in the future.
However, the nuances of the character development may go unnoticed if you haven’t watched the original film. It’s tough to determine if that is a good or bad thing. On one hand, we have seen a plethora of horror franchises produce sequel after sequel that do not require you to view the previous films in order to know what’s going on, as long as you have some vague idea of the franchise via cultural osmosis. But many of those same installments fail to add anything worthwhile to their franchise’s story or to the genre as a whole. However, most of the major plot points in this sequel play directly off what is established in the original. Happy Death Day 2U is really trying to avoid making a re-run of the first film, while expanding where the story can go. As a result, you can pretty much stop calling this a slasher film after about the 20 minute mark. After that point, even though the Gerber Killer remains an antagonist until the finale, the film operates mostly as a romantic comedy mixed with sci-fi elements rather than resembling anything related to the slasher genre. This will be a pleasant surprise for some, unfortunate for others, but ultimately it’s unclear whether this was the correct choice.
It’s not hard to determine that writer/director Christopher Landon (who also directed the original) saw the writing on the wall. He wanted to continue the story of the first film, but realized that the formula would probably wear thin quickly. Given the state of the slasher genre, it’s not hard to see why he came to that conclusion. In distancing the film from its horror roots, the film has more similarities to Back to the Future (which this film even name drops) than Scream. To be fair, the sci-fi elements open up possibilities for future stories that could be wildly imaginative given the right premise. But by explaining exactly why the loop occurred in the first film, it takes away from Tree’s journey. Like Phil Connors in Groundhog’s Day, Unfortunately, it’s the whodunit nature of the plot that drags the film down. As Tree has to eventually decide between two realities, her choice is intertwined with inevitability of confronting the killer.
But unlike a film like Scream 2, whose mystery plot ties back to the original while also paying off the themes of its narrative, Happy Death Day 2U does no such thing. It feels almost as if the slasher elements received the least attention during the formation of the script, as not only are the reveals painfully dull, but too heavily reliant on a plot element from the original that this film should have found a way to abandon as quickly as possible since there is absolutely no story meat left on that bone. This puts a damper on the third act, as the climax of the film really happens much earlier during an emotional conversation that Tree has with someone from her past. In short, where the original excelled at mixing the horror elements with comedy, romance, and subversion, this film’s attempts are much messier and unsatisfying. The issues with balancing so many distinct genres may split more fans than intended, which is unfortunate since the original’s handling of said genres is exactly why it was a sleeper hit.
It’s hard to see where the franchise will go from here as it’s unclear what’s left of the story to be told. Even as the last moments of the film (which includes a mid-credits scene) attempts to tease some of the ideas the filmmakers have on the table, it’s all irrelevant if Tree’s story feels as complete as it does now. Perhaps I’m not seeing the bigger picture of what Landon has in mind for this franchise, but I would caution that the original film succeeded because it was a very personal story told in the framework of a bonkers but familiar premise. Positioning the franchise towards something resembling Back to the Future or Ghostbusters could be the right move, but it could also be a death knell. Nonetheless, Happy Death Day 2U doesn’t meet the standard of its predecessor. But it does still give us characters we enjoy watching, done with a tone and style that is easily accessible. Perhaps we should just be happy that we two of these are any good at all.