If you were to take 1993's Groundhog Day and 1996's Scream and mix them up in a big bowl, you would get something resembling 2017's Happy Death Day, in which college sorority girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds herself in a time loop, murdered again and again by an anonymous baby-masked slasher. No matter how she tries to modify events and escape the killer, she dies, reawakening to start the same day and face its inevitable conclusion.
I thought it was a terrible idea for a movie. I also enormously enjoyed it, largely due to Rothe's keenly comic performance and an engaging cast also starring Israel Broussard as Carter, an unprepossessing, aw-shucks young student whom Tree doesn't know, but ends up falling in love with after spending the same exact day with him dozens of times. Happy Death Day worked for me despite everything that suggested it wouldn't, but how much hope can there be for a sequel to a movie that should have never have existed to begin with?
As it turns out, more than I thought.
It's absolutely imperative to have seen the original film before Happy Death Day 2U. Director Christopher Landon doesn’t not slow down to explain things. Almost before you know it, Tree finds herself back on the same existential merry-go-round, as she tries to comprehend what cosmic forces have propelled her back into the ultimate nightmare, experiencing seemingly endless permutations of her birthday, and ironically, her death day.
But even though many other details are precisely the same as they were the first time out — the ominous presence of the baby-faced psycho, Tree's grief over the death of her mother, the discovery that a sorority girl can find true love with a nerd — Landon very quickly distances this film from his original with a hard right turn that I never imagined. I'll tell you, without going any further, that Landon surprised me by very explicitly detailing what propelled Tree into that endless time loop.
Regular readers know I'm not a fan of having everything laid out. I'd rather have these mysteries left alone as enigmas that can't be parsed rationally by the human mind. But I'm satisfied with Landon's explanation, and, more importantly, I'm greatly amused by it. That's all I'll say, except maybe that, if the first movie is a mixture of Groundhog Day and Scream, this sequel introduces an equal ration of Back to the Future, and maybe even a pinch of The Big Bang Theory.
All this said, there's a single scene late in the film that is so ill-conceived, mis-written and badly acted that I can't imagine how anyone who saw the dailies, much less a rough cut, could ever have allowed it to stay. I would say it's egregious enough to kill the entire film, except it's counter-balanced by a truly sublime scene in which Tree finally confronts the true meaning of her ordeal, and maybe a lot more. It's a beautifully written and acted scene that gets to the point of it all.
I have difficulty reconciling how a director capable of such insight and energy could craft two such diametrically opposed sequences. However, if you can somehow ignore this one three-minute span, Happy Death Day 2U is one of those rare sequels that successfully balances repetition and originality.