The nice part about time loop movies where the protagonist repeats the same day over and over is it doesn’t feel like a shameless rehash when they make a follow-up. In this context, the weakness of so many sequels — that exhausting sense of familiarity — becomes a strength. It’s just another loop ... or something like 30 loops, in the case of Happy Death Day 2U.
The original "Happy Death Day" was an extremely clever slasher film riff (and riff and riff and riff) on "Groundhog Day", in which a mean sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) discovers she is stuck endlessly reliving the day she is brutally murdered by a masked killer. Directed by Christopher Landon and written by Scott Lobdell, the first Happy Death Day played with horror audiences’ expectations as well as any movie since The Cabin in the Woods, and it benefitted greatly from a terrific lead performance from Rothe, who organically transformed, Phil Conners-style, from obnoxious jerk to empathetic hero. Dying, it seems, really teaches a person how to live.
Rothe’s Tree closed her time loop in the last film without ever figuring out what caused it. This sequel begins by reopening it with a new protagonist — Phi Vu’s Ryan, Tree’s boyfriend’s roommate — and a slightly disappointing scientific explanation for all the temporal shenanigans. After some spoilery plot twists, Tree winds up back on her birthday, back in the same time loop — with a few key twists.
Not every turn of the plot works this time around, and it also seems like there is a very obvious solution to Tree’s new dilemma that would require a lot less time, effort, and repeated deaths via masked murderer to pull off. That said, on a technical level, it’s kind of insane how well Happy Death Day 2U is able to recapture the vibe (not to mention the minute details) of the first movie. All of the main actors return, including Israel Broussard as Tree’s impossibly understanding boyfriend Carter and Ruby Modine as Tree’s troubled roommate. And a lot of the minor characters from the previous film show up as well. The degree to which the sequel pulls off the illusion that Tree’s slipped back into the exact same day is extremely impressive.
Rothe is impressive, too. Having survived the ordeal of the first movie, she’s now an even more capable hero; it’s fun cheering her on as she takes the fight to her murderer rather than running for her life. The best part of Happy Death Day 2U is a brutal Sophie’s choice that Tree is forced to make once she’s trapped in her time loop again, and Rothe plays her big decision like it’s Shakespeare rather than the PG-13-rated sequel to a gimmicky horror-comedy. There’s even a scene that might make you ... cry? This is not your typical slasher film.
While I remain skeptical of some of the specific twists (a totally different killer tries to kill people on the exact same day in the exact same way as the last film, using the exact same costume and dirty baby mask?) I confess I liked Happy Death Day 2U more than I expected to. The cast was the original’s greatest asset, and every single character of note is back, along with the original film’s mordant sense of humor and surprisingly charming sentimentality. Best of all, 2U weaponizes your knowledge of the original — your confidence that you have seen this all before and you know what’s going to happen — and uses it against you. The new movie does feel familiar at times, but in a good way, like a birthday party with all of your closest friends. I'm going to "Happy Death Day 2U" a 7 out of 10.