Happy Death Day 2U is peppered with familiar faces from the first Happy Death Day, including the killer’s crooked-toothed baby mask, but somewhere between stab wounds and happy-birthday ringtones, the franchise becomes the romp it secretly wanted to be the whole time. Happy Death Day followed Tree (Jessica Rothe) as she looped Groundhog Day-style through a miserable day that always ends with her murder. She eventually escapes by defeating her killer(s), and even becomes a better person, an unusual side effect of being murdered.
The sequel picks up with Ryan (Phi Vu), a tertiary character from the first movie, who’s experiencing his own loop. Tree may know what he’s going through, but Ryan knows why — a physics experiment gone wrong. Attempting to correct the issue only throws Tree back into the same damn birthday loop, albeit with minor changes. Now she’s in an alternate reality, where her mother is alive, but her paramour Carter (Israel Broussard) dates Danielle (Rachel Matthews), the persnickety leader of her sorority.
Tree must choose between remaining in an unfamiliar world with her mother, nodding along to stories she doesn’t remember, or returning to her real life. That’s on top of figuring out who keeps killing her, since it could be anybody in this new dimension.
Happy Death Day had aspirations of a genre-bender, with one wobbly foot in the grave and the other on the stage of a comedy club; Happy Death Day 2U is the sturdier movie. The trappings of horror are still there — the knife-wielding killer, suddenly emerging from darkness — but overall the tone is action-comedy with a smattering of sci-fi. More Evolution than Halloween.
The comedy hangs, so to speak, on Rothe’s ability to nail a joke — or even just mundane dialogue — with a crisp facial expression. The switch from Ryan’s story to Tree’s pays off immediately as she storms through the same Monday from the first movie, hunched and scowling with an almost cartoonish vibrance. It’s literally the same sequence we saw nearly a dozen times in the first movie, but it works because Rothe sells it with a full-body aura of rage and exasperation. It’s cathartic, not redundant.
Of course, as a comedy, the slaying antics of Happy Death Day 2U skew fairly dark. Partway through the film, director Christopher Landon stages a montage of cheery suicides that Tree commits to avoid the terror of being murdered. The sequence is buoyed by Rothe’s exuberant approach to her method of death, such as toasting with a bottle of bleach before downing its contents in the cleaning aisle of a grocery store.
At moments, the movie strays into outright Looney Tunes-style goofs that nevertheless manage to land — literally, in the case of a slow-motion skydive suicide. Other times there are head-scratching gags, like an extended scene in which Danielle provides a diversion by pretending to be blind and also French. It doesn’t play well and it doesn’t add anything.
Happy Death Day 2U breaks from horror-movie sequel tradition and leans hard on its predecessor. The full cast of the first movie is back (even minor side characters), which sells the return to the loop and subsequent loopiness. I wouldn’t quite describe it as ambition, but the movie does a good job escalating the concept and emotional stakes. The fact that they were able to pull it off at all makes it a unique experience. Stick around for the after-credits scene and decide for yourself if the concept can be carried into a third movie.
Near the end, Tree advises Danielle that “every day is a chance to be someone better.” This is the earnest thesis for the Happy Death Day franchise; the purpose of suffering is to face your weaknesses, learn empathy, and grow as a person. Happy Death Day 2U still has some rough edges, but if they keep making the same movie, one day it’ll be a masterpiece.