Review: 'Happy Death Day 2U' Breathes Life into the Horror Genre

 
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Happy Death Day 2U is a surprising movie. Not just because it’s good, but because it isn’t even the same genre as the first one. Happy Death Day was a fresh take on familiar tropes, namely time loops and slasher horror, and managed to be both irreverent and charming. This one keeps those elements but dodges the more obvious, and probably expected, move of doubling down on the scares. Instead, it zooms in on the implications of time loops and somehow winds up becoming a respectable science fiction movie in the process.

The scenario, the problem the characters are trying to solve, is derived from science fiction rather than the slasher genre. In the first movie, Tree (Jessica Rothe) used the death loop to try and figure out who the murderer was. In this movie, it’s more about how the death loop came to be and what it means. This becomes the general focus while the horror elements take a back seat. The result is a different movie than what viewers might have been expecting, though its reuse of the cast, setting, and some plot points seems meant to ease audiences along in following it where it wants to go.

A big help there is Rothe’s performance, which is becoming downright iconic. The movie may actually rely too much on her, with the other characters receiving far less attention. The rest of the cast are plenty likable with a few, especially Carter (Israel Broussard) and Ryan (Phi Vu), getting some additional depth this time around. The thing is, some will recall the marketing promising more of an ensemble and may come away disappointed that Tree gets the vast majority of the screen-time. Others will be just fine with it, since Rothe brings so much to the table that it’s hard to imagine these movies working as well if they didn’t spin around her presence.

One of the ways Rothe proves to be indispensable is in her ability to effortlessly juggle the tonal shifts of Happy Death Day 2U. More than even the first one, it plays with being outright campy and it’s mainly Rothe who keeps this from becoming flat or annoying. It helps that director and writer Christopher Landon displays some great instincts for when to go over the top and when to reign it in. The movie is even able to get fairly dramatic and heavy once or twice and pulls it off even though it definitely doesn’t feel like it should be able to.

For example, death is as much a comic device as a plot device in these movies. This is often treated with a sense of dark humor, a kind of triviality that lets you watch characters die over and over and still laugh about it. At the same time, there are some deaths or sequences where the implications are darker and edgier if you think about it. One particular montage contains a couple of bits that might be genuinely upsetting for folks who are caught unawares.

Horror franchises often become self-referential. The best ones contextualize themselves within the genre by acknowledging their forebears. Scream comes to mind as a good example, but even that franchise eventually became meta about itself. Happy Death Day 2U offers contextual references and jokes, especially lampshading the tropes it borrows from movies like Groundhog’s Day or Back to the Future, but it’s interesting that most of these references aren’t to other horror or slasher movies, rather to science fiction or high-concept comedies. This respect for its influences allows it to avoid feeling blithely derivative.

Happy Death Day 2U is pretty good at having it both ways. It would be an exaggeration to say it really “flips the script” since the tone and energy remain consistent with the first one, even across the shifts in genre. At the same time, it wants to be relevant as a horror sequel and has a unique approach to doing that. Even the dark undertone that emerges here and there is played mostly for a chuckle, a kind of “wait a minute…” more than trying to be genuinely scary or upsetting.

The dramatic bits mentioned above come from a kind of feint the movie pulls with regard to the emotional core of the first one. Tree thought that the time loop was about accepting her mother’s death, which she does, and yet the whole premise of this movie is that the loop returns. So while at first it seems like this sequel is skewing away from that element, it really doubles down on it in surprising and satisfying ways. That this one is able to ditch most of its slasher roots and still provide another layer of payoff to Tree’s journey is proof of how clever and well thought-out this movie is.