Eric’s Review: Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Happy Death Day 2U repeats much of what made it good the first time, but to less effect.
Happy Death Day 2U repeats much of what made it good the first time, but to less effect.
Happy Death Day 2U repeats much of wha. . .
Hey wait a minute!

Directed by Christopher Landon

I am going to guess here that most movie critics will have opened with something like my introduction excerpt. And it’s true. If any movie was born to have a sequel, it’s this one. The whole notion of the rinse and repeat killing cycle makes a sequel a natural next move. The surprise Blumhouse hit from 2017 is back with the ENTIRE cast intact (believe it or not… given some of the last film’s circumstances) and they are ready to hop back on the merry-go-round.

I really enjoyed the first movie, which was a bit of a surprise. I am usually wary of serial killer movies, and even more wary of PG-13 conventional horror films, they are usually full of false jump scares and they pull their punches. Happy Death Day delivered, though, and in large part because of Jessica Rothe, who plays Tree Gelbman, the unfortunate young woman who gets caught in a Groundhog Day-like time-loop where she dies over and over again until she eventually defeats her killer. That can’t be a spoiler, though, since she’s BACK in the sequel. (Though given very little screen time.)

And that is the biggest thing Happy Death Day 2U has going for it. Rothe is a superbly emotive actress, and her charisma is what carries both of these movies. In many franchise horror films, the Killer (Chucky, Freddy, Jason, Pumpkinhead… you name it) is the draw. For these movies, it’s the final girl, and it is because Rothe pours everything into every little scene.

Somewhat problematically, this time around they explain WHY there was a time loop. Tree’s now-boyfriend Carter’s (Israel Broussard) roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) and his equally nerdy science cohorts Dre (Sarah Yarkin) and Samar (Suraj Sharma) have been working on a science project that has caused a time loop… or more to the point, an alternate reality loop.

In the first act, Ryan, not knowing the full impact of what he has designed re-starts Tree’s death loop, though now everybody else is in on it too… or at least the science students are. And, of course, there’s a babyface killer, but it is assumed that this is a new killer behind the babyface mask, because… Tree killed her.

This movie becomes less of a serial killer on the loose movie, and more of a beat-the-clock movie, as there are several sequences involving trying to either to start the machine up or to shut that machine down. In place of the serial killer angle played up so much, there is a big sequence in the middle of the film that requires Tree to kill herself over and over again, most amusingly with a wink and a nod with a wood chipper.

However, as a result, the movie is somewhat neutered. You never really feel the presence of the Babyface killer, and though he (or is it she?) shows up several times during the movie, there is never that foreboding dread that the first movie did. So, as a horror movie, it really doesn’t work very well.

And, as much as I like to see more diversity in movies, and applaud how much screen time Phi Vu got, it boils down to familiar tropes: the Vietnamese guy, the Indian guy, and the Jewish girl get saddled with being science nerds. (shrug) They are also, sadly rather wooden. So is Carl this time out. And Tree’s nemesis sorority sister (now Carl’s girlfriend in the other reality) is hammy and over the top, without being the queen bitch antagonist she was the first time around. My take is that the cardboard characters were more the result of the script than the casting, to be fair to the actors.

ATMOSfx! Woo!

And since this is a movie about repetition, allow me to repeat myself. Rothe is a STAR. She is far and away the best thing about this movie. The best part of the movie is the Catch-22 that she gets put into when having to decide on which reality to be in because she gets reunited with her beloved mother who is dead in her main reality. Rothe’s little twitchy subtle reactions are heartfelt and hard won. And when Tree needs to go full rage crazy, she can do that too. And the free spirit goofy character that we came to see develop in the first movie is also in effect here.

But that brings me to another mild weakness. One of the strengths of the original movie was the character arc that Tree had to go through. She went from being a nasty mean girl to loveable and compassionate goofy girl by the end. This time her arc is flat. She doesn’t have to go through a change, since we already like her, and that the crises she faces here pale in comparison to her first loop conundrum. The movie never really builds up any dramatic tension to hang on to.

As the crew struggles to get their equations correct and execute their plans before the University shuts them down, Tree struggles with the decision of which reality she should live in. And this decision is what substitutes for her missing character arc from the first movie. Something that burrowed into my brain, however, was the fact that at one critical moment of decision, Tree actually could have her cake and eat it too, but she didn’t pull the trigger, but it wasn’t highlighted, it was a plot hole.

I think that Blumhouse should hit the stop button here. No more sequels. Truthfully, the lackluster box office doesn’t suggest the need for another one, despite the success of the first movie. I can’t see how you draw this out much further, though there is a Men in Black type of ending that suggests where they might decide to go with this, but I see that as a huge risk of diminishing returns. Also Rothe is now 32, and I don’t think trying to use the same timeline is going to work for her as an undergrad. My real hope for her is that she gets another Blumhouse gig on a more dramatic role with a Jordan Peele level director. I think she could be a much bigger star, with the right casting, and she has the ability to elevate even fairly simple plots like this one.

If you haven’t seen the first Happy Death Day, go see it. It’s great! It uses the gimmick expertly, and has some pretty good PG-13 scares, and you get to enjoy Rothe’s performance and see her elastic personality on display. This movie? It’s not bad. It’s somewhat average, but a good time. It isn’t quite as clever as the first one, though it does have its moments, and it isn’t nearly as scary.

Happy Death Day 2U is rated PG-13 for stabbings and jump scares, but no gore. This movie is currently in wide release throughout the US.

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