HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U Review: The Real Dark Universe

This darkly comic reflection of the original is just as good on its own terms.

The original Happy Death Day came out of nowhere – well, specifically it came from Blumhouse, so we should all know better by now – and it was a smash success, a truly unique high concept mash-up of slasher tropes and Groundhog Day. So of course it seems like a no brainer from a fiscal standpoint to jump all in on a sequel, and here we are a scant seventeen months later with Happy Death Day 2U, a film with a cutesy title that had some of us wondering if the magic could be easily recaptured so quickly. After all, not only would 2U need to live up to the elegant set-up of its predecessor, but it would also need to do something fresh with the repeating-day gimmick so that it didn’t feel like it was simply repeating the entire first film again. Thankfully, this sequel manages to be of relatively equal stature to the first Happy Death Day, but on its own, equally satisfying terms.

The film opens this time on Ryan (Phi Vu), roommate of the first film’s love interest Carter (Israel Broussard), living the same day multiple times after being murdered by someone in a baby mask, much as Tree (Jessica Rothe) had one day prior. As it turns out, Ryan and his science geek friends had been working on an experiment in quantum mechanics, and the unexpected side effect of their machine is that those in proximity to it end up in a time loop, thus explaining the events of the first film. This apparently also creates bridges between alternate timelines, so as complications cause a malfunction in the machine, Tree is pushed into one of these different dimensions, living her birthday over and over again… again, but this time in a world that feels just a bit off from the one she knows.

One of the major concerns I had going into Happy Death Day 2U was that it was going to be a disservice to Tree’s character arc in the last film, effectively undoing her growth in dealing with the death of her mother by making her relive their shared birthday without that all-important thematic significance. I'm pleased to report that not only does 2U recognize the importance of not undoing the consequences Tree’s character development, but it uses its premise to explore new territory and flesh out Tree’s internal conflicts in new and fascinating ways. Even the idea that the mechanism of Tree’s time loop should remain unexplained is handled with intelligence and care, allowing the first film to stand independently without needing this admittedly goofy sci-fi explanation to tie a neat bow on things.

But if there’s one thing that makes 2U stand out in relation to the first film, it’s that it is a decidedly goofier movie, and it plays that to its benefit. Where Happy Death Day was a true blue slasher flick with a dark sense of humor, that sense of humor has been brought to the foreground and the slasher elements have become the set dressing, almost like the film is itself an alternate universe version of what came before. This may be disappointing to some horror fans who were hoping for more of the tension and blood the franchise began with, but 2U absolutely shines as a comedy, with constantly hilarious dialogue and performers who have a great sense of comic timing; there are clearly some takes that go on for a few beats longer than they need to just so the actors can have fun improvising a bit more. Jessica Rothe once again demonstrates a fantastic screen presence as both a scream queen and queen of comedy, this time tinged with an angry and cynical edge that makes her an absolute riot, from the way her eyes tick when pissed off to the gleeful fervor with which she kills herself in increasingly theatrical ways.

Unfortunately, there are a few plot points that don’t cleanly come together, either out of convenient plotting or ideas that are set up without pay-off, so the film as a whole can crumble a bit if you squint at it too hard. However, as a line of dialogue observes, the events of Happy Death Day 2U are a lot like Back to the Future: Part II, and if there’s one thing you need to remember to enjoy that movie, it’s to just have fun and not sweat the details. Happy Death Day 2U is a sequel that never really needed to exist, one that I probably wouldn’t have wanted if it had been up to me in that extremely quick greenlight after the first film’s release. But Happy Death Day 2U does exist, like a cynical doppelganger, and I'm glad that it rules so hard in its own parallel way.