Let’s get this out of the way early on: I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day back when it dropped in 2017. It had a fun concept — where a college student named Tree (Jessica Rothe) was trapped in a time loop that reset every time she was killed by a baby-masked slasher — and a swell little cast, but it had a plodding and dull script (what else would you expect from Scott Lobdell, the man who nearly killed X-Men comic books for a generation back in the ‘90s), and it was super limited by its PG-13 rating, which kept things from getting too interesting. As such, I had some reservations about the film’s sequel, which sports the very silly title Happy Death Day 2U, which saw the return of all the things that I liked (the concept, the cast) and one thing I didn’t (PG-13), but I’m here to tell you that this slasher sequel is actually pretty solid, mainly because, you know, it isn’t really a slasher.
That’s right, Happy Death Day 2U foregoes the genre of its predecessor and strikes out on its own in favor of sci-fi slapstick, and it’s mostly successful at doing so. You see, we begin with Ryan (Vu) — the roommate with the horrible timing from the first movie — waking up in his car after being sock-on-the-door’d by his bro Carter (Israel Broussard) and Tree, and making his way to his laboratory. You see, Ryan’s a scientist, and he, along with a team of other students, is working on some sort of magical Macguffin with time-altering powers. He’s told by the school’s dean that his project is getting put on the back-burner, thanks to the havoc that the device is wrecking on the electrical grid, and soon after, he’s murdered by a killer sporting the mask of his school’s mascot: A baby.
He wakes up back in his car on the same day, remembering everything from the previous day. Luckily, his roommate happens to be dating the one person in the world that this has previously happened to, and Tree vows to help him stop the killer. What follows involves parallel universes, duplicates, and a whole lot of dying on Tree’s part, and it’s interesting to see how Langdon weaponizes our knowledge of the first film against us, as well (I highly recommend you revisit the original before you see this, too: it’ll make things so much funnier).
Landon’s claimed in a number of interviews that Back to the Future II was the main inspiration for the sequel (and it’s lampshaded in one particularly goofy scene), which is interesting due to what exactly he took away from it. It certainly wasn’t the tone, which is by far the most defining feature of Zemeckis’ film, which moved away from the bright and fun sensibility of the first film to make something significantly darker and uglier. In fact, the opposite is true with this new Happy Death Day film, and it’s something that plenty of people will probably be frustrated by. This isn’t so much a slasher film as it is a goofy sci-fi comedy, in which there are broad and jokey slapstick setpieces to go along with what Landon really took away from BTTF2: Its complicated weave of timelines and its usage of minor details that the viewer is already familiar with to mess with their expectations. But it’s not a bad shift, honestly, especially given how quickly the high-concept nature of the script might wear itself thin, and it allows for Landon to free himself from Lobdell’s influence in more ways that one.
Once again, a lot of the film’s charm falls squarely upon the shoulders of its very capable and diverse cast, who clearly appreciated Landon’s push to make the sequel different and funnier. Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma and especially Rachel Matthews are given a number of actually solid gags (Matthews’ airheadedness here is occasionally gut-busting, especially in one scene involving her preparing for a role in The Miracle Worker), and Rothe has a show-stopping death-and-research montage that culminates with her throwing up double-birds at the camera while falling before smacking the pavement with a bloody thump. It’s not all fun and games, however: Rothe, unsaddled with the odd “redemption” plot of the first one, is able to get towards some sweet and sad truth in her actions. It’s hard to talk around one of the film’s central twists, which provides Happy Death Day 2U with its gooey emotional center, but let’s just say that it takes one of the classic time-travel tropes and twists it on its head a little bit a remarkably lovely little end. This wouldn’t have been possible if it had just been a doctored version of the first film — which would have ensured diminishing word-of-mouth and a smaller overall audience, but at least some sort of a guaranteed return on investment — but I’m glad that Landon pushed to make his movie something fresh.
So, in short, if you’re looking for Happy Death Day 2U to be a retread of the first film, you’re most likely going to be disappointed, and you can feel free to join the ever-growing chorus of people frustrated on Twitter chanting “Not A Slasher” to the God of War soundtrack (which, incidentally, was penned by the composer of this film’s score, Bear McCreary). It doesn’t really betray the mystery of the first film, even though it may make it a little sillier, but let’s just remember that it was, in fact, a slasher riff on fucking Groundhog Day — hardly the end-all-be-all of cinema itself — and the way that Landon messes with your expectations on the micro level feels in line with how he’s doing on the macro one (say, in how it changes genre).
Yet, if you’re the kind of person who watched the Friday the 13th series out of order and didn’t mind — or actually kind of liked — going from the first film straight to Jason X, well, this might be the Valentine’s Day surprise you’ve been waiting for. I fell into that second camp, and I hope you’ll give this very silly sequel a chance. Also, stay through the credits.