Back in 2017, Blumhouse released a Groundhog’s Day take on the slasher genre. Happy Death Day was unexpectedly funny, smart and boasted some fun PG-13 kills. Two years later, Tree (Jessica Rothe) and the gang are back for round two with Happy Death Day 2U, a sequel that leans into the series’ comedic potential, introduces some light sci-fi and, unfortunately, completely forgets about its slasher elements.
The film opens with Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), Carter (Israel Broussard)’s roommate in the first film, waking up in his car. Writer/director Christopher Landon tracks Ryan’s walk down the street and back to the dorm room, training the audience to make note of incidents that could recur should the day repeat. After being booted out of the room by Tree and Carter, Ryan is sequestered in his lab with his scientific thesis project before he is lured into an empty room and stabbed by Baby Face, the franchise’s cherub-masked killer. He immediately reawakens back in the car, retraces his steps and confesses his déjà vu to the lovers. Upon hearing about his experience, Tree and Carter snap into detective mode, aiming to keep Ryan safe and uncover the identity of his assailant.
In these early scenes, Christopher Landon’s screenplay is filled with potential. The opening attack initially makes it seem as though Ryan has replaced Tree as the new repeat survivor of the film, a concept that is upended as both the source of the time loop is revealed and a new loop is instigated… with a twist to keep things fresh and interesting.
This means an increase in screen time for several of the first film’s secondary characters, including Ryan and, more specifically, Danielle (Rachel Matthews) who accounts for a great deal more comedy. Meanwhile, the introduction of a key character pays off one of the first film’s weaker subplots. It also allows Rothe several emotional scenes in which to flex her dramatic muscles.
Suddenly all of the familiar character traits and relationships from the first film are upended (these are hinted at in the trailer). These alterations allow HDD2U to playfully shake things up and help the sequel avoid becoming a déjà vu loop of its predecessor.
Whereas the first film centered around Tree’s need to die repeatedly in order to identify the Baby Face killer, the main thrust of the sequel is driven by Tree’s desire to reset this loop and return to her stable relationship with Carter. This means less focus on the killer and more on Tree’s work with Ryan and his lab mates, Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Anna (Sarah Bennani) trying to identify a scientific algorithm over several weeks worth of trial and error, resulting in another terrific montage set to pop music.
The new montage sequence is a high point of the film, which struggles with its energy and focus. Landon’s efforts to pay off eagle-eyed fans of the first film is admirable as whole sequences and lines of dialogue are replayed. Attempts are also made to explain narrative gaps such as Tree’s accruing injuries and why the school has such an unusual mascot, but overall Landon’s witty screenplay is much more comedically inclined than it is in revisiting the slasher tropes of the first film.
This is most apparent in the egregious use of Dean Bronson (Steve Zissi), an unfunny new supporting character who acts as a foil for the group’s work. Bronson would fit right in on the set of National Lampoon film and he (unsurprisingly) figures prominently in a third act comedic set piece that grinds HDD2U’s momentum to a halt at a time when it should be barreling towards the climax. Sure it’s mildly amusing, but at what expense?
At this point, we should probably discuss the (forgotten) Baby Face in the room. There is still a masked killer (albeit one that is seemingly relegated solely to the hospital). Serial killer John Tombs (Rob Mello) is also back, but he’s little more than a pawn in a new scheme that Landon’s screenplay is completely disinterested in. Baby Face is largely absent from this film, as are any thrills or notes of horror.
Following the first two attacks on Ryan at the start of the film, there is arguably one other scary set piece here, but for the vast majority of the runtime, Happy Death Day 2U is focused on Tree’s emotional relationship. The sequel doesn’t invest in the identity of the killer, so much so that by the time the showdown with the new Baby Face occurs, the revelation and its narrative impact equates to little more than a shoulder shrug (albeit still with a self-reflexive wink to the first film).
Fans who were initially attracted to the original film’s creative deaths and its choose-your-own-adventure style narrative will need to adjust their expectations accordingly. Rothe remains a dominant and endearing presence and her chemistry with Broussard is palpable, plus the expanded roles for several secondary characters is noteworthy. Unfortunately, Happy Death Day 2U too frequently loses sight of its slasher origins in favour of comedy first, sci-fi second and horror a far distant third. The sequel is an admirable attempt to offer a new spin on a familiar tale that frequently works in the small moments, but audiences anticipating a second round of Baby Face will undoubtedly walk away disappointed.
Note: there is a mid-credits stinger that offers hints of where the franchise could go in a potential third outing, but it is also simultaneously a capper in the event that HDD2U is the end of the road.