For whatever reason, slashers are my all-time favorite film subgenre, a sentiment that can be traced back to the time when my mom erroneously let me watch Scream on TV when I was eleven. Regardless, we haven’t exactly gotten a whole lot this decade, largely because audiences got burnt out on all the crappy remakes that came out in the 2000s. One that we did get however that I was super stoked about beforehand was a little film called Detention, starring Josh Hutcherson and Dane Cook – keep in mind this was filmed in 2010. It turned out to be a grueling wait for me, as it took distribution approximately a year-and-a-half after the trailer dropped to actually get it out there, discounting an appearance at SXSW. What I’m sure was a surprise hit in another dimension turned out to go unnoticed in ours, as the reception of those who did see it was generally negative. And, I gotta say, I have to agree with them. While it might’ve been due to the fact that I’d hyped it up to a bar that no film could clear, I found it a bit too smug in its self-awareness for its humor to resonate. Not only that, but the plot was so unrestrained that it completely abandons its slasher roots at some point to become a full-fledged science-fiction flick, complete with teenage time travel that undoes most of its own deaths. Ugh. Anyway, I’ve tried to repress the memory of that clusterf*ck going on seven years now, but now I find myself thinking about it once more with the advent of Happy Death Day 2U, an oddly-titled sequel to a film whose meta humor I actually enjoyed. The reason that I liken it to Detention is that it too tries to blend slasher and sci-fi elements to humorous effect, so much so that it’s actually a bit of a departure from the first Happy Death Day. As much as I loved the first one, I’ll admit I was fairly hesitant about this one, partly due to my experience with the Cook film. And while it’s certainly better than Detention – and with better effects despite having $1 million less to play with – I don’t quite know if the total change in approach was worth it. It’s ballsy, to be sure, and actually hitches its star to an even more solid emotional core, but somewhere along the way it forgets its roots, and delivers a mishmash that can’t quite get all its toys to play nice together.
Now that Tree (Jessica Rothe) has defeated her killer and broken out of the loop, Happy Death Day 2U picks up with her in a relationship with Carter (Israel Broussard). The day after Tree’s birthday, Carter’s roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) is being stalked by his own version of Babyface, seemingly stuck in a similar loop. Tree is able to pinpoint the source of the loop as Ryan’s collegiate science project, a quantum reactor. While Ryan and his colleagues are initially confident they can close the loop once and for all, they inadvertently send Tree into an alternate dimension, one in which she is again being continuously slain by Babyface on her birthday. However, there are slight variations in this dimension, as it is evident that Tree’s roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) is not the one behind Babyface this time around. Not only that, Carter is no longer in a relationship with Tree; instead, he’s in a relationship with her evil roommate Danielle (Rachel Matthews). The real kicker, however, is that Tree’s mother Julie (Missy Yager) is still alive, her having passed away long ago in Tree’s previous dimension. As Tree once again looks to solve her own series of murders, while simultaneously assist Ryan in closing the loop for good this time, she must also make a decision on whether she wants to return to her own dimension, or stay in this new one.
There is a lot of juggling going on in this one, narratively speaking. And it almost pulls it off. I’m not super eager to diss writer-director Christopher Landon for introducing too many subplots, because the ones he does introduce are actually fairly effective. Just by creating this alternate reality that’s only slightly different, he’s able to explore some emotional depths that would be otherwise untouchable from a screenwriting perspective. Chiefly it all has to do with Tree’s dilemma between wanting to be with Carter and her mother and not being able to choose both, and somehow Landon is able to make the case for both options, putting us squarely in Tree’s shoes. Frankly, I didn’t care much for Carter as the ostensible male lead of the first film, feeling he could have been swapped out for another character and I wouldn’t have noticed. And a lot of that has to do with me not quite loving Broussard as an actor. But somehow they’re able to turn that dynamic between him and Tree into something compelling, something that can mostly be attributed to Jessica Rothe’s fantastic performance. I was genuinely rooting for her to be with him – because Rothe makes me want what she wants – even over the prospect of her reuniting with her mother, which is suffused with the kind of raw emotionality that you don’t often see in a horror movie.
So I bet you’re asking yourself how I can be as down on this movie as I am if all the new stuff is great? Well, frankly it’s all the old stuff that the new stuff pushes into the corner and only acknowledges on an obligatory level. Namely, the slasher-mystery element that is at the franchise’s genre roots. Again, I am a die-hard slasher fan, and will never get enough of the classic stuff like Friday the 13th. But when the subgenre is as its best is when there’s a who-dun-it element inherent, when the seemingly supernatural killer is actually one of the characters you’ve gotten to know well, harboring sinister intentions. It’s a more engaging experience for the audiences, and allows them to sift through all the red herrings and make an educated guess before the finale. Happy Death Day 2U, however, is not interested in any of that. In fact, Babyface plays very little into the overall story, which is weird considering that character would typically be the main attraction. I mean, what would Scream be like if it hardly had any Ghostface? Still, even though there’s a severe absence of the killer through much of the runtime, the film is aware that it’s obligated to have a reveal moment in the third act. Usually those kind of events are cathartic for the protagonist and antagonist alike, but here I’d be surprised if it lasted longer than a minute and a half before the characters move on. The moment is incredibly dull, their selection of a new killer feeling completely arbitrary and moot. Whereas the first Happy Death Day had a pretty good fake-out twist, revealing an underbelly of something that was right in front of your face the whole time. Instead the scene feels like they’re using old parts in building an entirely different car, giving the entire film a disjointed feel toward the end. And I’m of the disposition that they could have tied all the subplots together with that reveal, make it feel cohesive, but as it stands, three out of four wheels still won’t make this car run well.
Still, it shouldn’t be said that there’s no fun to be had here. At the end of the day, these are subversive comedy movies first and foremost, and the casting department did a really, big solid by putting Jessica Rothe in the lead role. She keeps this film afloat and then some, providing exactly the kind of whacky comedic relief it needs to keep the viewer entertained. But her talents don’t stop there, as she’s deftly able to hold her own in the movie’s most poignant scene, which nine times out of ten would come off as hokey in this kind of story, but thanks to her surprising amount of gravitas, she’s definitely able to bring it home. While she’s only got two of these movies to her credit, I’d certainly rank Tree among the best of the final girls, particularly insofar that she is a flawed character with legitimate arcs in both installments, rather than the virtuous blank slate that we’re used to with these archetypes. I’m still waiting for Rothe to shoot out into superstardom, but even if that inevitability is delayed further, I’d still like to see her do another one of these.
So, yeah, Happy Death Day 2U. Kind of a missed opportunity, but certainly better than your average slasher movie sequel. I still don’t think these movies are the third coming of the slasher renaissance, but they’re better than nothing. And definitely better than Detention.
Final Score: 5/10