By Preston Wilder
Lightning strikes twice in Happy Death Day 2U, a freewheeling sequel that’s mad fun – if perhaps a bit too scattershot – from beginning to end. The original (from 2017) was a happy surprise, a gimmicky-sounding horror riff on Groundhog Day which turned out to be cheeky and joyous – and now here’s another happy surprise, a sequel to a one-off hit that shouldn’t really work but, if anything, outdoes the original.
Happy Death Day was something of a slasher movie, albeit in the bloodless way that’s become common nowadays. (Credit producer Jason Blum for having realised that the obvious audience for horror films – high-schoolers going to the cinema in groups – were being shut out of 18-rated horror films.) The sequel is different, skewing more sci-fi than horror – specifically the teen-friendly sci-fi of 80s hits like Zapped! and Back to the Future. There’s some weird science going on here: Carter’s roommate Ryan and his geeky friends have a science project – actually a thesis project, the setting being ostensibly college – nicknamed ‘Sissy’, a quantum-mechanical gizmo they’ve built in the lab. Sissy, we should note, isn’t software but an actual metal contraption, the kind that tends to malfunction so one geek can fiddle with it then announce to the others: “OK, try it now!”. Never let the digital age stand in the way of a goofy teen movie.
The cheesy 80s vibe is strong here. There’s an irate, blustering Dean who treats our heroes like children and finally has to be distracted – as part of a Scooby-Doo plan – by one of the gang posing as a French exchange student, complete with ’ello-monsieur accent. Then again, there’s also Tree (fabulous Jessica Rothe), who lived – and died – the same day over and over in Happy Death Day, and Carter (Israel Broussard), the sweet boy in whose dorm room she always woke up after one of her deaths, and Carter’s roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) who was something of a horndog in the original but now turns out to be a geek, as already mentioned. It’s Ryan who opens the film, getting dispatched by a killer in a baby mask only to immediately wake up and experience the whole day all over again. “It’s like Inception,” he concludes, a dream within a dream – but Tree and Carter know better, and explain the rules of the game to him.
Let me spoil right now (hopefully without many more spoilers) that this opening is a red herring, its function being to explain what’s going on for those who missed the original. (Happy Death Day made $55 million in the US, a fortune for low-budget horror but not the kind of loot that usually leads to a sequel.) “Let’s recap,” says Tree, recalling what happened to her in the first film – and it’s not long before the plot shifts from Ryan to her, a structural gambit that feels slightly unwieldy. Happy Death Day 2U is two films in one, and might’ve worked better if they’d found a way to tie the first 20 minutes to the rest of it.
Then again, it already works quite spectacularly, juggling half-a-dozen balls while also keeping up a stream of patter and adding a few unexpected lump-in-throat moments. Tree is exactly like the audience, always one step ahead – she’s been here before; so have we – yet forever being blindsided. The film, like last week’s Lego Movie 2, almost starts to suffer from over-virtuosity, so relentless is the constant invention. There’s the baby-masked killer, of course, offing Tree at every day’s end – unless she elects to kill herself, which she does in a bad-taste montage of outlandish exits (from the classic hairdryer-in-bathtub to, for instance, going skydiving in just a bikini). There’s the geek squad racing against time to fix Sissy, there’s Tree trying to figure out which dimension she’s in, there’s a touch of death (“That shit hurts!”) and a stray touch of sex – and there’s even an emotional/existential angle linked to Tree’s late mother. Could all this be happening “for some cosmic reason”, forcing our girl to come to terms with her loss? For a silly teenpic, Happy Death Day 2U is pretty inexhaustible.
None of this really evokes the film’s exuberance, any more than describing (say) Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure would evoke that film’s oddball charm. It’s a case of a popcorn flick that exceeds expectations (the budget is only $9 million, about one-twentieth of Alita: Battle Angel’s), so surprisingly agile and funny that one may be tempted to overrate it. When the various elements collide in a final countdown, it may well have you cheering in the cinema – but let’s not lose sight of objective flaws; the writing isn’t airtight, the direction not especially inspired. Like Tree, I hope to get wiser with every Happy Death Day iteration – but that’s twice now this feisty franchise has caught me off-guard. I can live with that.
DIRECTED BY Christopher Landon
STARRING Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu
SCI FI HORROR
US 2019 100 mins