By ROBERT DANVERS
Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard and Phi Vu
Written and directed by Christopher Landon
The original HAPPY DEATH DAY was just that: an original, in the current climate of scare retreads. As star Jessica Rothe lit up the screen, director/co-writer Christopher Landon delivered a infectiously upbeat blend of jump scares and snappy snark with a slasher-film corkscrew reworking of GROUNDHOG DAY. Assuming full screenwriting duties for the inevitable sequel HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U, Landon took on the added difficulty of avoiding production company Blumhouse’s milking-an-idea-dry tendencies—after having been part of one himself with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES.
And as HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U begins, it looks like Landon has dropped the ball, with an extended prologue that quickly comes to feel overextended. We’re deposited right back as the first movie was ending, with off-kilter brainiac college student Ryan Phan (played as before by Phi Vu) waking up in his stanky car. It’s morning on the now-familiar Bayfield University campus, where Teresa “Tree” Gelbman (leading lady Rothe) evolved from self-absorbed sorority girl to can-do gal when put through the wringer, living (and dying) through a murderous time loop. Ryan makes his way back to his dorm room, where Tree and Ryan’s awkward-nice-guy roommate Carter Davis (Israel Broussard, also back) had finally gotten together at the close of the prior film. Ryan goes on with his own school day—until he is ambushed by the mascot-masked killer Babyface. When he awakes from this nightmarish encounter, he’s back waking up in his grotty auto…
…and everyone and everything is déjà vu all over again. By the time Ryan makes his way back to his room, it’s clear he’s going to need Tree’s help in figuring out what’s happening to him. Having kept Tree all but offscreen for a not-so-good 10 minutes, Landon gets around to trapping her in her birthday-gone-bad time loop again. Some sort of space/time continuum conundrum is manifest, and it’s going to impact other students, plus key off-campus personae from Tree’s earlier odyssey. Once again, Babyface—or perhaps a copycat?—will pop up to attack Tree in violent fashion; battle-weary though she is from the “day” before, it’s time for her to jump back into action battling the killer and fate amidst gallows humor and bone-breaking demises.
Little should be revealed about the plotting from this juncture on, since the movie springs surprises ranging from milieux reprises to returning characters—not all of whom come back in the manner we or Tree are expecting. It’s here that Landon steers the movie into a sharp left turn towards Amblin territory, as BACK TO THE FUTURE (referenced onscreen via a poster and a verbal exchange) proves to be more of a touchstone here than slasher movies. HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U concentrates less on shock and more on “awwww,” going for sweetness and sentimentality as much as, if not more than, violent attacks and deaths; it’s a gamble that, despite some stickiness, largely pays off. While Tree has learned from her mistakes in how to navigate fraught scenarios, Landon has placed an even stronger-than-expected emphasis on how she has matured and now truly cares about others far more than herself, and those stakes are upped here in ways that aim for emotions other than scares.
Rothe once again takes the role of Tree and runs with it, externalizing her character’s forcibly restarted drive with both hilarity and dynamism while illuminating her internal conflicts and yearnings. She’s also a hoot to watch enacting the various death throes; one teased in the trailer has a bravura punchline that has to be seen to be believed, running back-to-back with another one that, together, constitute these movies’ latest stretchings of the ever-elastic PG-13 rating.
As it has only been 16 months since the first movie opened, viewers will have much of it fresh in their minds, but the filmmakers have shown verve in cueing up “oh, that’s right” triggers so that variations and upendings of scenes and themes can be fully enjoyed and appreciated. It must be said that the further the narrative goes into its reset scenarios, the more certain plot or logic points might not hold up under closer scrutiny. But with a fully engaged returning cast plus some welcome new players, Landon has again set rollicking and affectionate fun co-existing with a built-in high body count.
Moviegoers should also be advised that, as with many movies these days, rushing to leave the second the credits start rolling will lead to missing out on another surprise—and it’s not the usual Blumhouse one either…