Fans of 2017 sleeper hit Happy Death Day can breathe a sigh of relief – the sequel, Happy Death Day 2U is a pretty delightful follow-up. It takes elements of the original horror parody and successfully transitions them into a slasher film/Back to the Future mash-up that’s both delightful and… incredibly moving? The sequel to Happy Death Day manages to recreate the hat trick pulled in the first film and offer audiences a story that not only hilariously skewers horror tropes. More surprisingly, it also offers a sensitive portrayal of grief. Go fig.
If you were all set to peep Easter eggs from the original cropping up in the sequel, bring a big basket. Because the story picks up at the precise moment Happy Death Day ended, everything looks remarkably familiar – so much so that it feels more like the next episode in a Ryan Murphy miniseries than a movie sequel. To wit, every single cast member returns to reprise their roles (down to Goth Boy and Greenpeace Girl), as do Tree’s borrowed vintage tee and her smudged, walk-of-shame mascara. If you were to watch these movies back-to-back, the amount of exact similarities between the two might be almost distracting.
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But despite the fact that it hasn’t moved to a new playground, Happy Death Day 2U takes a few left turns to give us an entirely new permutation of the original premise. Tree still finds herself locked in a time loop, but because of some quantum mechanics shenanigans pulled by Carter’s roommate (the “did you hit that vag*na!” guy from the first film), now she’s dimension-hopping, too. For his part, Ryan gets nicely fleshed out into a brilliant, but stupid student who accidentally invents an interdimensional travel device and proceeds to immediately rip a hole in the space/time continuum.
After the machine goes haywire, Tree winds up in a universe two doors down from her own where Carter’s now dating mean girl Danielle, and Lori, the original antagonist from the first film, no longer bears her any ill-will whatsoever. There’s still someone trying to kill Tree, but given her previous experiences, she’s now in possession of a “very particular set of skills,” and operates on the offensive for most of the movie. She’s more the hunter than the hunted this time around, as she’s trying to figure out the science behind what’s happening to her by day and avoiding the Babyface Killer by night. There’s virtually no time for her to be afraid, so she just gets to work. The result is a horror heroine who never feels like a victim, even when she’s being stabbed in the stomach.
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It should come as no surprise at this point that much of Happy Death Day 2U’s success rests on Jessica Rothe’s shoulders. There aren’t many performers well-rounded enough to deliver comedy at the level she does, while matching it with some incredibly compelling dramatic work when the issue of her late mother rears its head once more. She’s the emotional core of this movie, and as such deftly ping-pongs back and forth between parody and tragedy. Part of the reason Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U work so well is because they juggle both of those elements perfectly, and that’s largely due to Rothe’s performance. That said, the fact that the supporting cast steps up considerably in this movie should not be ignored. Rachel Matthews is low-key a comedic revelation as sorority HBIC Danielle, as are Ryan’s lab buddies Samar and Dre, played by Suraj Sharma and Sarah Yarkin, respectively.
Despite how well Happy Death Day 2U performs as both a sequel and a reimagining, it still approaches the limit of how hard a story can lean on a gimmick, parody or no. There's no shortage of 10-second high-stakes countdowns in this movie, and they get tedious, quickly. And as talented as she is, Rothe can only die and be reborn so many times before she runs out of ways to react to it. Happy Death Day 2U effectively evolves the original premise into something different enough that it's both surprising and familiar, but if the planned third sequel winds up happening, it’s going to have to do a lot to distract from the Groundhog Day plot device that starts to chafe just a little toward the end. But writer/director Christopher Landon seems so in command of his vision that we wouldn’t be at all surprised if he pulled off something else both unexpected and entertaining.
Regardless of whether or not the two movies blossom into a 10-film franchise or stop here, as a pair, Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U have more than earned their place among horror parody classics like Scream, Scary Movie and Cabin in the Woods. And given how far away Happy Death Day 2U moves from the horror genre and into action/comedy, clearly Landon isn’t putting any limits on himself. It’ll be interesting to see if the franchise gets an opportunity to stretch even further, and what it will become as a result.