Director: Christopher Landon
I can’t blame you for not rushing to the theater in the fall of 2017 to see HAPPY DEATH DAY. Yet another entry in Blumhouse’s exhaustive canon, those hoping for a bruiser of a Halloween entry from the horror juggernaut were split on the charming, but unapologetically “pop,” slasher. Nevertheless, upon rewatching it in anticipation of the sequel, I was struck by how much smarter and well-executed it is than the average moviegoer gave it credit for, a fun-forward PG-13 outing that’s intermittently silly, but more often than not has a whole collection of tricks up its sleeve. All of this is to say that I was both excited and skeptical for HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U, as the concept simply could not float a straight-laced repeat. Thankfully, Christopher Landon’s second time at the series’ helm (already a genre anomaly) is nearly a moment-defining entry in how to handle horror franchises, something that’s the same but entirely different, a creatively overstuffed sequel treatment that’s nothing if not unique.
Picking up right after the first film ended, it seems as if another deadly time loop has descended upon Bayview High, this time affecting Ryan (Phi Vu), the hapless roommate of Carter (Israel Broussard) from the first film. We gear ourselves for a tired retread, only for Tree (Jessica Rothe) and company to quickly get to the bottom of who’s donning the Babyface mask. However, the reveal is quite shocking, throwing us off to the multiverse races. Through a menagerie of twists and turns, Tree must determine which version of reality she wants to call home, work to close the various loops, and stop the freshly minted Babyface killer in a world slightly different than her own.
Me checking Twitter in the morning
If the idea of the current fascination with multiverses coming to the Happy Death Day property alarms you, it’s understandable. However, in a genre so militantly focused on quick cash-grabs, it’s a breath of fresh air to have a sequel that puts this much effort into expanding its world of story and presenting us with a never-ending stream of new scenarios and possibilities. Rather than being a collection of indiscriminate plot points that allow you to be dropped in at any time—think any of the increasingly middling Insidious sequels—2U actually demands that you see its predecessor, as it directly address, contextualizes, and builds upon the lore that came before it, throwing quantum theory, physics algorithms, and morally terse Sophie’s choices at you all the while. Honestly, it’s kind of impressive that a franchise that once featured a montage set to Demi Lovato’s “Confident” asks this much of its Friday night audience, and while returns can admittedly vary, I don’t think I’ve seen a sequel, much less a horror one, that’s made my head spin quite like this one in quite some time, the exact opposite of phoning it in.
Say what you will, but Michael Myers never did THIS!
What’s more, 2U somehow also skates through the historical horror sin of explaining and rationalizing its core gimmick. While the first installment is all the more light and snackable because it doesn’t bother explaining any of its logic, 2U pulls off the near-impossible feat of explaining how the time loops are created via a quantum reactor thesis project and somehow sticks the landing, giving what would typically be a dreary drudge through exposition a signature franchise twist that fits in with the overall tone of the property. Whether it be the bona fide Three Stooges routine of a heist to get the confiscated reactor from the Dean’s office or the deliciously gauche suicide gauntlet that Tree undergoes in order to test out the various algorithms the group comes up with to close the time loop, 2U is only ever having a blast and entirely owning the elements that stretch suspension of disbelief, and it’s hard not to have a smile on your face as you play along. In a genre that mostly relegates sequels to having a main franchise baddie kill more people in a different location, something like this that explores the less-traveled nooks and crannies of its potential stands out.
All that said, I would be remiss to not make it clear that this is not a horror film. The slasher elements, while present, constitute maybe 20% of the actual outing, most of it focused on the decision Tree has to face regarding whether to stay in a reality where her mother is alive or return to the “original” reality of the first installment. As such, unless you found yourself wrapped up in and charmed by the first film, this may not be for you. Bald-faced emotionalism, heavy deployment of theme, and plenty of melodrama are present, and if you’re strictly of the SUSPIRIA or HEREDITARY bent, you likely won’t find much to connect with. However, again, I can’t help but be impressed at just how little reverence 2U has for our presupposed expectations of form and execution, an almost tongue-wagging lack of regard for playing by the book. To have a film marketed as genre fare entirely place its genre elements on the back burner to instead shift to a comedic, light sci-fi character study is… bold! Fresh! Innovative! It doesn’t always knock it out of the park but it’s certainly more arresting than the next Paranormal Activity with a dash cam or something of the like.
Knowing Blumhouse, “DASH CAM” is probably just the next film in the lineup
It’s certainly for the fans, and may struggle to make any new converts of the unconvinced, but damn it all if HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U doesn’t showcase an original voice. I’ll go on record as saying I’m dubious as to the success of a third installment if the tag at the end is any indication of where the franchise is going, but you mark my words, Christopher Landon is a tour de force of creativity and it’d be a pleasure seeing him inject a breath of life into one of Blumhouse’s more tired properties. It will surprise at nearly every turn and more than likely will frustrate you at one point or another, but HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U is a sequel the likes that horror has never seen.