Pauline Kael famously remarked that movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them. I’d like to offer a variation on that thought: that Hollywood films are so rarely original that we should be prepared to commend inspired unoriginality.
For a prime example of inspired unoriginality, take 2017’s Happy Death Day. It was Groundhog Day done as a campus slasher. It wore its influences on its sleeve, and proceeded to rub that sleeve on the audience’s faces saying LOOK LOOK DO YOU SEE THESE ARE MY INFLUENCES HERE THEY ARE.
And the audience (or at least, this member of the audience) says “oh, yeah, Groundhog Day as a campus slasher. That’s a pretty solid premise. Good on you for coming up with it.”
But now we come to Happy Death Day 2U. The very idea of a sequel to Happy Death Day is, perhaps, the point where we see the strain between the film’s two components: while slashers have long thrived on sequels, with nary a masked maniac being conceived without at least half an eye on a potential franchise, nobody wants a sequel to Groundhog Day. Happy Death Day 2U might be the part where the whole experiment blows up.
And would you believe it? An exploding experiment turns out to be a major plot point in the film.
Happy Death Day 2U reveals that the time-loop suffered by protagonist Tree, unexplained in the first film, was the result of a misguided science project carried out by previously-incidental character Ryan and his buddies. At first, the sequl appears to be frantically cycling through ideas as to how this revelation can be worked into a plot: it starts out with another time-loop, this time with Ryan at the centre; it then goes off in a completely different direction by having Ryan briefly meet a double from another timeline; next, it appears to be rehashing the original film by trapping Tree once more in her birthday time-loop.
But then the main twist occurs. Tree has actually ended up in another timeline, where a number of things are different. On the downside, her boyfriend is instead dating the resident mean girl. On the up side, her dead mother is still alive. Meanwhile, a murderer is once again afoot – but a different murderer to the one in the first film. Tree enters her ordeal with a rough idea of how to escape the time-loop (by sorting out Ryan’s experiment) but she must also face the matter of which timeline she should escape into.
Happy Death Day 2U loses the conceptual clarity of its predecessor. This isn’t Groundhog Day as a campus slasher; it’s a comedic parallel universe story with bits of Groundhog Day and slashers grafted onto it. It’s about as chaotic as that sounds, but on the whole, it works.
The film has a number of highlights, some calling back to the original Happy Death Day, others building upon it: Tree dying in various comical manners as she helps with the trial-and-error portion of the experiment; campus antics as the heroes stage a daring heist right under the nose of the antagonistic dean; an engagingly silly mystery subplot involving the new murderer; and a really quite sweet emotional core as Tree takes stock of the important things in her life and makes the requisite sacrifices.
And it’s all held together by a thoroughly watchable cast. Jessica Rothe is on good form again as Tree, and Phi Vu does a lovely job of shifting Ryan from the minor character of the first film to the key player in the second.
All in all, a worthy effort at building upon the original Happy Death Day. It may not be a necessary sequel, but hey: sequels are so rarely necessary that if we cannot appreciate unnecessary but enjoyably off-kilter sequels we have very little reason to be interested in them.