Making a horror comedy that successfully riffs on the Groundhog Day formula while simultaneously being thrilling and hilarious is no easy task, and yet director Christopher Landon did just that with 2017’s Happy Death Day. That he could deliver an equally (or near-equally) satisfying follow-up to that pleasant surprise seemed fairly improbable – especially when sequels, and horror sequels in particular, rarely measure up to their predecessors. But Happy Death Day 2U is another pleasant surprise from Landon, who managed to not only make a sequel worthy of its predecessor, but wholly subvert the expectations of his audience in the process.
In the first film, Tree (Jessica Rothe) is forced to relive the same day – her birthday – over and over again, each time ending in her death at the hands of a killer sporting a goofy baby mask (it’s her college mascot, for some reason), until she can solve her own murder… and hopefully avoid any collateral victims. Picking up exactly where the previous film left off, Happy Death Day 2U opens as Tree and new beau Carter (Israel Broussard) are interrupted by his roommate Ryan (Phi Vu), who has just come to the realization that he’s also reliving the same day over and over again, each ending when he’s murdered by a killer wearing a goofy baby mask. Having been killed a dozen times herself, Tree is now an expert in this horrible Groundhog Day scenario. She springs into action to help Ryan solve his own murder, and it’s not long before they discover the real culprit behind all these wacky time loops.
There are some plot specifics best left unspoiled, but Happy Death Day 2U significantly ups the ante of the first film by expanding the sci-fi concept. Unlike its predecessor, which was more of a direct slasher comedy, the sequel is a wacky sci-fi-comedy-romance-horror-drama in which the slasher mystery becomes a subplot. It’s a narrative inconvenience for our protagonists rather than the central plot device, though there are still plenty of devices – including a rather pivotal one that, with a post-credits assist, helps set up a third installment in the series. Based on how bonkers this one is, a third film would have be cuckoo-banana-pants-insane to top it, but Landon proves he’s more than up to the task of upping the ante in terms of tone and stakes. The sequel is a genre-bending blast, with Jessica Rothe once again proving her skill as both a comedic and dramatic actress. When Tree is suddenly thrust back into her previous time loop (something teased in the trailers), she’s understandably enraged, and Rothe’s furious stomping all over campus is particularly delightful.
Also enjoyable is the chemistry between Rothe and Broussard, particularly as the film skews into more dramatic territory and the stakes are inevitably raised. Tree is forced to make an incredibly difficult and potentially heartbreaking choice, one that yields some surprisingly tender and poignant moments amid the hilarious chaos. Like the film itself, Rothe deftly navigates these seemingly disparate genres; she keeps Happy Death Day 2U and all its crazy moving parts firmly anchored.
There are some flaws, of course: The constant tonal shifts eventually have an effect on the film’s pacing, and it begins to drag a bit somewhere in the transition between the second and third acts. Though much of the film is propelled by a sense of urgency, the burden of carrying the weight of so many characters and ideas begins to show. A subplot involving the college dean (Steve Zissis) and Tree’s awful sorority president (Rachel Matthews) feels borderline unnecessary, though it is nice to see the latter with a slightly bigger role. The sequel also gives us a couple of new characters in the form of Ryan’s classmates, played by Suraj Sharma (The Life of Pi) and Sarah Yarkin (American Horror Story), both of whom fold into this wild narrative rather seamlessly.
Comparing Happy Death Day 2U to the first Happy Death Day feels almost unfair (and kind of reductive, to be honest) given how different the sequel is from its predecessor. As a horror comedy sequel, it’s not quite as great as the first film, but as a sequel that’s more comedy than horror, and actually way more of a sci-fi flick than a slasher, it’s not only awesome, but it’s pretty amazing that it even exists.