I don’t think I ever actually wrote about the original Happy Death Day, it came out in one of those periods when I hadn’t the energy for anything. Yeah, I actually have two and a half paragraphs about it sitting in the draft folder that constitutes my recycle bin. It was a fun and poppy flick. I compared it to other Groundhog Day x whatever genre movies and found it to be well placed in the pack.
What I was less hot on was its treatment of its lead. Jessica Rothe is legitimately great in both films; her heroine Tree is manic and messy and alive. As the joint swung wildly between slasher horror and slapstick gags her commitment (and aptitude at both) grabs the audience early and yanks them through the wild ride. The only problem is that the film isn’t really all that interested in her. She’s a joke, her sorority is ridiculous, the affair she’s having with her teacher is open invitation for us to further judge her.
No, what she needs is to take advice from the nice boy (Israel Broussard) whose bed she spent the night in. The sweet, understanding, nerdy kid — the only possible person in the world who could take her struggle seriously. It might be a side effect of the male gaze, but the film feels like we’re only invited to glimpse her troubles through the lens of how this one particular boy can fix them. In its closing moments it winks at the audiences by having one of the characters reference Groundhog Day itself — the context, his astonished exclamation that she’d never watched the movie.
It’s a pretty bum way for the thing to end. ‘Cool girl don’t know about movies, unlike you educated cinemagoers.’ Fucking Groundhog Day bro, not really much to shout about. It’s only there to remind you that the person you’re really supposed to identify with is the boy. Happy Death Day 2U pulls the same gag, except this time it’s in the middle of the runtime and the film brought up by the (newly formed) nerd squadron is Back to the Future 2. In this context it’s less a victory lap than a promise — ‘We’re juggling a lot of balls here. Don’t worry, they’ll all get caught by the end.’
It’s an ambitious sequel. Like, instead of telling another story about these people, they chose to tell all of them. The film starts off with the time loop having passed onto a new victim (Phi Vu), the boy’s roommate and a kinda one note joke character in the original. Then after that runs outta steam it goes back to our lead, we also get introduced to a piece of sci-fi gadgetry that is responsible for the hijinks, then step into an alternate universe. The killer is back, things are different, nobody’s sure how to fix things and the college’s president is on the warpath for these time wasting PhD. students.
If the original swings precariously between horror and comedy, this one explodes onto the screen trying to be everything at once. It’s a romance, primarily I guess — it explains the Valentine’s day release date. The sciencey side of it is heady if not strictly hard and there’s multiple scenes of lab based technobabble. The slasher action sits pretty much as an afterthought, hangover from the original, it’s quite clear that the film’s heart ain’t there. Because why not dedicate an equivalent amount of time to a heist sequence.
It’s messy and unstructured. At one point an alternate universe clone of a character arrives with a grim pronouncement before dying and we just steamroll through that shit. It’s all ideas, except that it doesn’t have the time to sit with them and consider what they mean because it’s out here staring intently at its predecessor. By fifteen minutes in, the lead is living the same time loop, on the same day as the original. It kinda feels like they see it as a redo.
This joint was written by Christopher Landon, the director of the first, taking over the duty from comics author Scott Lobdell who penned the first. It basically spends all of its time relitigating the relationships of the original, except this time actually from the proper lead’s perspective. We actually see her have a relationship with the women in her life, unclouded by the misogynistic tinge that the first was mired in. We see her consider her relationship with the man she met. Even the subplot about the family she’s avoiding is properly given its time here.
That elusive quality, heart, that the first one so lacked is found in abundance here. New characters are introduced right off the bat just because it thinks that they might be nice people to spend some time around. The one note joke character is given a whole life to lead. That’s kinda beautiful, and when finally it gets to the point when a couple kiss in slow motion, showered by sparks, yeah. I felt it.
It’s a wonderful work of reclamation but, unfortunately, as a movie it’s so uneven. There’s only so much weirdo, random shit you can stuff in before an audience realises that the work ain’t propelling itself. In those moments its not unveiling some new twist or spin or having somebody suddenly turn up in a scene to shout, it drags terribly. Sure, I can remember the big moments, but outside of them all that’s left is vague feeling. Writing this I had to go back to the film’s Wikipedia entry to realise, ‘Wow, yeah, that happened too,’ because the individual parts are so disjointed.
Early on there’s a montage that recaps the literal entire plot of the first film in case people forgot or didn’t see it. I do wish that the film would have found a way to work without it.
Happy Death Day 2U is currently screening in UK cinemas.
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