Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

Phi Vu as Ryan in “Happy Death Day 2U,” written and directed by Christopher Landon.

I believe that it’s easy to explain why a great movie is great.  Explaining why a bad movie is bad or doesn’t work requires much more effort.  

If I were to ever have a film studies class, I would have my students watch Happy Death Day (2017) and its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U (HDD2U), and explain why the first one works while the second one does not.  The original cast is back, along with some enjoyable supporting characters. The acting is good for the most part. The special effects are good.  The concept of stopping a murderer using physics is relatively novel.  Something is missing though in this sequel.  For me, figuring that out is more interesting than the movie itself.

The movie starts out promisingly, with Ryan Phan (Phi Vu) a minor character from the first movie finding himself caught into the same loop as the Tree. He gets killed by the baby mask killer, only to wake up wondering, WTF?. Most horror movies feature young, pretty white girls in the lead, so having a young Asian male as the lead for an American horror movie would definitely be a unique approach.

But shortly after establishing what I thought was a neat twist on the premise of the original movie, HDD2U comes up with a convoluted way to put Tree back into the same loop she was trapped in in the original movie.  The first horror movie I can remember that retconned itself in its first sequel.

In HDD2U, college coed Tree is returned to the Groundhogs Day existence that tormented her in HDD.  Because she can remember what happens from each previous day, she remembers that Ryan told her about a physics experiment that went awry the previous night.  Tree demises that the device Ryan and his friends (the nerd squad) are working on is the cause of Tree’s time loop.  This time around, though, things are different.  Tree and Carter are no longer an item, with Carter actually dating her sorority rival Danielle, and her roommate Lori no longer the secret villain.

Ryan and the nerd squad explain to Tree that she is not only stuck in a time loop, but that she has been placed into a different version of her life in the multiverse.  To get back to her reality, every day, she needs to convince the nerd squad of her predicament and help them program the device to both end her time loop and send her back to her reality.  Heady stuff for a horror movie.

While the HDD borrowed the narrative construct of Groundhogs Day, HDD2U borrows directly from the plot. To avoid being killed by the baby mask killer at the end of the day, Tree chooses to kill herself, often in very funny ways.  (The “suicide montage” is the funniest part of this movie by far.)  In between suicides, Tree must memorize complex formulas devised by the nerd squad, so that she can repeat them back to the nerd squad when the day repeats.  Like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhogs Day, Tree’s character grows in some interesting ways in this movie, but to what end?

Jessica Rothe comes off a bit more shrill in HDD2U than in HDD. I guess if I was stuck living the same day over and over, I probably would become a bit manic myself.  Most of her best scenes are with her mom, who is alive in the alternate reality Tree finds herself in. That the dramatic scenes play the best in a horror movie is problematic.

When Tree realizes that the reason she was stuck in a time loop in the first movie (and now this one) is due to a physics experiment gone awry, not bad karma, she states how disappointing that revelation is.  I agreed.  By removing the supernatural element from the plot, the movie has neutered itself. What was a clever turn on the horror genre is now essentially a dramedy. 

As HDD2U played out, I figured that the nerd squad would eventually figure out the calculations and program the device to send Tree back to her reality, and they did.  A dramatic choice would have been to kill Tree off and have one of the supporting characters figure out what’s going on, but that appears to have been too risky a choice for the filmmakers involved.  All of the choices in the movie feel safe.  HDD2U primarily doesn’t work as a horror movie because there are no stakes. Because there are no stakes, there is no tension.  Because there is no tension, I never felt for a moment that any of the characters were in any real danger.  Without danger, you don’t have a horror movie.

For some reason, I laughed every time the world’s most annoying ringtone played on Tree’s phone.  Maybe if they do another sequel, the baby mask killer could stalk the ringtone’s creator.

HDD2U actually has a credit cookie. After the killer has been stopped and the multiverse made right again, the group is whisked off to a government lab and asked to explain how the device works. I was really hoping that The Avengers would show up but alas, it was not to be.

While I don’t recommend watching HDD2U, HDD is worth a look.

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