Two years after the events of 'Happy Death Day', college student Tree (Rothe) once again finds herself repeatedly reliving the same day of her life over and over. This time though, she appears to be doing so in an alternate dimension, where the circumstances of her life are very different, but the circumstances of her death risk being the same, unless she can close the loop and stop the killer once more...
2017's ‘Happy Death Day’ focused on Tree being stuck in a time loop on the day of her murder, resetting each time she was killed - a kind of 'Groundhog Day' where not seeing your shadow may truly mean never seeing the light of day again. Delighting in teen slasher horror movie tropes, without going fully meta in the vein of the ‘Scream’ franchise, it was lively, engaging, and highly-enjoyable, with a great central performance from Jessica Rothe.
In this sequel, writer/director Christopher Landon returns to the scene of the crime – effectively rebooting the first ‘Happy Death Day’ – and develops it by delving into minute details of the original plot and expanding or changing the roles of several minor characters. Although this seems ambitious, and he has some fun with mixing genres, it doesn’t totally work. By explaining the recurring rolling blackouts and the initial cause of the time loop, it is kind of answering questions nobody asked; and the sequel also suffers from the same problem as the first 'Happy Death Day' of being unnecessarily over-convoluted, with one twist or turn too many derailing the action and narrative flow. Similarly, as most of the characters in the first movie were such thinly-drawn caricatures, asking us to reimagine them in new situations is kind of unremarkable.
Having said that, there’s still a lot of fun to be had with ‘Happy Death Day 2 U’ as a darkly-comic horror, even if it’s sort of ineffective as a sequel. Landon lands some good jump scares, while the baby-faced mascot disguise worn by the killer still makes for an extremely creepy villain. Returning the focus to Rothe’s character Tree, after an opening which suggests the perspective is going to shift to a different character, shows that Landon knows her character is at the heart of the film – even if leaving that intro in also shows that the film needs a better editor. Rothe really sells the film’s change of direction from a slasher film into into more sci-fi territory, even where the script lets it down, playing Tree’s stages of grieving her own death(s) perfectly.
One of the film’s highlights is a spunky death montage, showing Tree’s emotional range veering from deadpan exasperation, to desperate rage, to perky resignation at what’s to come. And while attempts at building emotional bonds between characters doesn’t always succeed, the scenes with Tree’s mother – who is dead in the first movie, but alive in this film’s alternate timeline – are surprisingly moving. Anyone who was on board with the first ‘Happy Death Day’ will enjoy Tree’s arc, and Rothe’s performance: it’s everything else, the over-complicated padding with extraneous character and plotting detail, that drags the film down.
‘Happy Death Day 2 U’ ambitiously builds on the original to produce a creative, cross-genre send-up of a slasher sequel, which, while messy and over-convoluted, is nonetheless jumpy, darkly-humorous, and occasionally poignant.