A Rare Slasher-Movie Sequel That’s Both Cerebral and Fun

The loopy and meta Happy Death Day 2U follows in the footsteps of its 2017 predecessor by being a surprisingly subversive work of horror.

Jessica Rothe in 'Happy Death Day 2U'
Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (Universal)

The premise of 2017’s Happy Death Day is a perfect elevator pitch: What if Groundhog Day were a horror film? Theresa (Jessica Rothe) wakes up in a college dorm room, goes through her routine, and then dies at the hands of a masked serial killer, becoming the first murder victim of the movie. Except when she dies, she wakes up back in that dorm, at the start of the day again, doomed to relive the experience but, perhaps, given the power to solve the mystery. The movie’s cutesy log line belies a clever undermining of genre conventions. Theresa (nicknamed “Tree”) is very much a horror-film trope, the first casualty in a slasher flick, the character who exists only to die and to raise the narrative stakes for everyone else. In Happy Death Day, though, the action stays with her. And because of that, she eventually gets to become the hero.

Christopher Landon’s film was a classic Blumhouse surprise—a disposable-seeming, low-budget entry from the horror-centric production company that turned out to be a rather subversive piece of work. Its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, faces a new challenge, however. It’s armed with a cute title, but how can it recycle a story concept that is itself about recycling, about living the same day over and over? For Landon, who both wrote and directed this second entry, the answer is simple: Take the very idea of a horror sequel to its logical extreme, and make Tree literally relive the first movie, down to the wardrobes, the set dressings, the background characters—only this time equipped with the knowledge she gained from the original go-around.

If that sounds excessively heady, don’t worry too much. Landon’s film is also broad and funny, tossing the requisite jump scares and PG-13–level violence into a story that doubles as a sci-fi caper. Though it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor, Happy Death Day 2U is along the lines of other recent inexpensive genre efforts that behave more like franchise blockbusters by building out their lore and doubling down on their nerdiness. Think of John Wick, which went from cult hit to summer tentpole, or the more recent box-office success Escape Room, which had an ending that teased an epic, universe-expanding Escape Room 2. In this Hollywood age, even the silliest of sequels has to feel like an event.

Happy Death Day 2U embraces that mandate by being a sequel that’s about making a sequel, digging into the formula of replicating a hit, keeping what worked and throwing out what didn’t. The film opens with the clever twist that Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), a tertiary character from the first movie, is now the one caught in a loop, thanks to an illicit science experiment he’s running out of the college labs. But this serves only to explain the origins of the series’ time-travel conceit. Soon enough, Ryan ropes in Tree to try to solve his quandary, and in doing so, ends up trapping her in the original loop, yanking her back to the first film’s premise.

Landon squeezes plenty of humor out of all the repetition. Every character except for Tree resets to their old self, the kind of devolution to the status quo that so many second entries demand. Think of RoboCop, a film about a cybernetic law-enforcement officer who over the course of the movie comes to accept his own humanity and takes off the metal mask that hides his face. What happens in RoboCop 2? The mask is back, and the character’s mechanical personality has returned, just to ground audiences in familiar territory. Happy Death Day 2U’s script gets a lot of comedic mileage out of playing with that reset concept before it starts to throw in tweaks.

Tree’s frequent time traveling does, quickly enough, expose some differences in her current reality, and most of the film is spent solving new twists on old mysteries. Comparing this chipper confection of a movie to Shane Carruth’s famously dense indie classic Primer might be absurd, but as Happy Death Day 2U keeps unfolding, there are moments of glorious ambition—one character runs into his double, while others see their motivations shift as the time stream is corrupted. The entire project is anchored by Rothe, an immensely charming performer who was the first Happy Death Day’s most valuable asset.

Expectedly, the film ends with a teaser for an even more convoluted (potential) threequel. The need to concoct follow-ups for hit slasher movies is part of an age-old Hollywood tradition, not a symptom of recent franchise fever. But what distinguishes Happy Death Day 2U is its willingness to dig deep into the universe Landon (and the original film’s writer, Scott Lobdell) created. It’s one thing to make fun of the repetitiveness of a second movie, but this one manages to do that while actually expanding its storytelling horizons.