Happy Death Day 2U review: Horror sequel subverts expectations in the riskiest way possible

The latest film to roll off Blumhouse Productions’ conveyor belt of high-concept horror finds a way to break the endless horror loop

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 14 February 2019 12:33 GMT
Happy Death Day 2U - Trailer

Director: Christopher Landon. Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma, and Ruby Modine. Cert 15, 100 mins

Happy Death Day, released in 2017, offered audiences a sleek premise: it’s Groundhog Day, but as a horror film. More accurately, it followed a stuck-up college student, Tree (Jessica Rothe), who was handed the opportunity for personal growth after being forced to relive the same day over and over again; that is, until she discovered the true identity of the masked murderer who always managed to dispatch her before the clock struck 12.

It was the latest film to roll off Blumhouse Productions’ conveyor belt of high-concept horror, taking snappy elevator pitches (last year brought Truth or Dare – it’s a truth or dare game, but it’s cursed!), and reliably turning a neat profit out of a low-budget production. Happy Death Day was made for $4.8m, but earned $125m worldwide, ensuring a sequel was inevitable.

Yet Christopher Landon, who returns as Happy Death Day 2U’s director, has found a way to break the endless horror loop. His sequel subverts expectations in the riskiest way possible, choosing not to deliver a horror movie in the first place. Instead, the film shifts the mood firmly into the territory of the 1980s sci-fi comedy. Tree discovers that her time looping misadventure was not, in fact, due to the machinations of a higher power, but the direct result of a science experiment by her sort-of boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard) and his nerdy pals (Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma and Sarah Yarkin). They’ve managed to build a quantum cooling reactor capable of bending time and space, resulting in a mishap that not only sends Tree back into her time loop from the first film, but into a version that exists in a parallel universe where things aren’t quite the same – including the identity of the killer currently roaming around campus.

This time around, Tree’s concerns are less to do with solving her own murder than finding a way back to her own dimension. It’s a clear nod to the Back to the Future trilogy, which the film doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge. Cue the line: “This kind of reminds me of Back to the Future II.” Subtle this film is not.

Happy Death Day 2U is comfortable throwing out references to Weird Science and Revenge of the Nerds, possibly because it knows how leftfield this all seems in light of what came before. There’s a mean-spirited dean (Steve Zissis) who repeatedly stomps on our heroes’ plans, while a climactic mission involves posing as a French foreign exchange student. But Landon approaches the entire concept with such zeal, bolstered by Ben Baudhuin’s snappy editing choices, that it’s easy to fall for the gimmickry of it all, even if its charms start to wear thin by the final reel.

Happy Death Day 2U, more importantly, never loses sight of its secret weapon: Rothe, who rolls with every punch this film throws at her. She’s hysterical when her face scrunches up in pure rage, as she storms round the campus quad for the tenth or so time, or when she becomes increasingly blasé about her own death now that it serves merely as a rest button for the day. Yet she also imbues her character with an unexpected vulnerability. While the film’s attempt to ask how tragedy defines who we are isn’t entirely successful, Rothe at least makes the emotions involved as believable as possible.

It’s hard to believe that Landon would have found any more success if he had tried to stick with horror for Happy Death Day 2U. Where else could you go with the idea, other than repeat the same process with a different character (as the film does briefly tease)? The sci-fi comedy route may eventually run out of steam, but it’s at least one way to eke a little more life out of the concept without sapping the audience’s patience.

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