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Happy Death Day 2U

This purposefully repetitive horror-comedy franchise is back for another run.
By Sarah Ward
February 14, 2019
By Sarah Ward
February 14, 2019

2017's Happy Death Day was the knock-off that wasn't; the rehash that name-checked its inspiration, yet did more than recycle used parts. Groundhog Day for the 21st century, it took its repetitive conceit, coupled it with a slasher flick premise and had a damn good time with the combination. When you felt like you'd seen it all before, that was by playful design. When the film threw up its own surprises — and when it toyed with genre conventions in the process — it pleasingly exceeded expectations. Watching a sorority mean girl navigate the same day endlessly not just in the name of self-improvement, but to catch her own killer, proved the lively spark that both college-set horror flicks and time loop movies needed.

With follow-up Happy Death Day 2U, the scenario gets a do-over, although not in the way viewers might initially expect. Where Happy Death Day saw Tree (Jessica Rothe) reliving her birthday over and over, this inevitable sequel basically sees her revisit the past film again and again. Initially, however, the movie tasks someone else with experiencing a perpetual replay. From the outset, Ryan (Phi Vu) — the roommate of Tree's new boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard) — replicates the same day that Tree kept enduring in the initial picture. But there's a reason for Ryan's repetitive blast from the past, thanks to his thesis physics experiment. Quicker than anyone can spit out a jumble of science jargon, his attempts to redress the situation throw Tree back into her old loop, albeit in an alternative dimension.

From the retro poster on Carter and Ryan's dorm room wall, to the familiar refrains throughout the film's score, to characters flat-out discussing the similarities, Happy Death Day 2U treats Back to the Future: Part II the same way that its predecessor treated Groundhog Day. The beloved 80s sci-fi comedy is the flux capacitor powering this three-decades-later spin, but switching sources of inspiration, and ostensibly switching genres as well, doesn't make for as satisfying an outcome this time around. Written and directed by Happy Death Day's Christopher Landon, who only served as director the first time around, this sequel isn't lacking in ambition. It deserves props for endeavouring to find an interesting hook, rather than favouring a bland rehash. Still, try as it might, Happy Death Day 2U can't splice its self-referential nature and its leap into science-fiction into a convincing, completely engaging whole. As the film's feisty heroine learns more than once, when you revisit the same scenario, the little changes can't be ignored.

Specifically, Tree can't escape her new dilemma — as well as staving off another mask-wearing killer, she's forced to pick between realities. The loop she's now in corrects a past trauma that she's eager to unburden, but robs her of the one thing about her future she was looking forward to. That's weighty material for a sci-fi slasher comedy, yet this isn't a weighty affair. While Happy Death Day 2U feigns at depth, and broadly takes Tree on another emotional journey, it has much more fun when it's focusing on its two gimmicks. When the picture nods and winks its way through literally repeating the initial flick, it remains peppy and perky, particularly as Tree thwarts her would-be murderer by taking matters into her own hands again and again. And although the film enjoys its science fiction silliness perhaps more than the audience, there's no missing the caper vibe. (In fact, as far as the movie's mood goes, bumps, jumps and horror thrills give way to an energetic onslaught of temporal absurdity.)

At every point along the way, Rothe firmly demonstrates why Happy Death Day 2U exists beyond its potential to repeat its predecessor's box office bonanza. When the first film more than hit its marks, much of its success sprang from its little-known star's shoulders. Here, as Tree discovers that she's doing-over her endless cycle of do-overs, Rothe gives the kind of committed performance that the filmmakers are right to build a franchise around. That proves true whether she's glowering in a near-cartoonish rage, or navigating a suicide montage (and revelling in her own death more than should be possible). She's never less than an exuberant delight to watch, a description that only keeps proving true the more ridiculous the movie gets. And yet, if you're wondering why the end result remains a little underwhelming, the answer is simple. All that dying eventually pays a toll on the picture's protagonist, and all that effort to twist the same idea in new ways just feels weaker on a second run-through.

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