Happy Death Day reemerges in 2019 as an intrepid exploration of genre. If the original film was a subversive mixture of Groundhog Day (1993) and Scream (1996), the sequel is a high wire act, balancing precariously between those influences, and the inclusion of Back to the Future: Part II (1986) twists. These are a lot of comparisons, not to say that Happy Death Day 2U is derivative, but that it is particularly inspired by a certain kind of genre exploration. Drawing from Back to the Future tells us several things about how it wants to operate as a trilogy. It’s a statement of intent of sorts, that each entry might be found wholly different from the last. The franchise’s rebellious trailers do not play the usual game, they did not spell that the original is chiefly interested in slasher horror or that its sequel is a horror rom-com about parallel realities. Instead, the marketing gives way to poppy wonder, seeking a target demographic that sets it up to be this generation’s great slasher. The prime example of the difference is that while both trailers feature 50 Cent, absurdly, his songs are nowhere to be found in the films. Not only do the trailers not give up all the good moments, they are selling a different film, and lovingly expanding the reach of horror in inventive ways.
In Happy Death Day (2017), Carter (Israel Broussard) remarks that their situation reminds him of Groundhog Day. Tree (Jessica Rothe) has never heard of it. Jump to Happy Death Day 2U, and he remarks that the situation is exactly like Back to the Future: Part II, and she’s seen Back to the Future, hasn’t she? “Sorrrrry,” Tree groans in her sorority sister drawl. Jessica Rothe continues to be the highlight here – not the Final Girl we’ve been looking for – but the Infinite Girl that is the answer to tired horror tropes. Carter works with her as a functional love interest, the reflection of the audience mirrored onto the screen. Yes, he keeps posters for all kinds of Science Fiction films that are evidently great influences, he’s knows all the material that describes the situation and like us, is incredibly aware of the contract he’s signed. We know the basic beats of Happy Death Day 2U, we’ve seen those films. It is at once for us and for the girl in the back of the theater, who resembles Tree and feels equally represented. The sequel also makes due, leveraging Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), Carter’s friend who starts every morning entering the dorm and encountering the couple. He’s pulled right out of Revenge of the Nerds (1984), and it’s a big surprise the film places so much focus onto him. He’s perfectly fine but does not play very well into horror tropes, although is semi-believable as a science nerd creating some multi-dimensional device that does a little too much to describe how this all works in the first place.
Our first loops follow Ryan, to the collective groans of our audience. That’s the trick here, right? That’s not the film. Soon we’re reunited with Tree, and with much duress, she’s put on the same path as the original. She relives that same birthday, but perhaps through a parallel reality from the previous film. This allows for Director Christopher Landon to rediscover how to play in Happy Death Day. For one, it resets the central relationship. Carter is now enamored with Tree’s best friend, Danielle (Rachel Matthews). On the upside, Tree’s Mom is brought back to life, and she’s given the opportunity to relive their shared birthday over and over, making up for lost time, and allowing the series to settle into greater stakes as a character drama.
Baby mask killers are still rampant. The first half of the film soaks in the horror routes, with equally chilly slasher setups that are basic slasher stuff, but existing as a refined point. It’s that refinement that keeps it moving. This is an unusual Blumhouse picture, in the diverse range its allowed to emphasize. It is many types of films. The same way Back to the Future found consistency by replicating the essential newness of the original, Happy Death Day has settled willfully into the same tract. Only half a horror film, Happy Death Day 2U is intent on reclaiming the high-concept romance of Groundhog Day while finding its own fun in broad Weird Science (1985) callbacks.
Happy Death Day is our finest modern horror franchise. It has a great breadth of desirable influences, while never veering into the trap of copying without adding value. That’s the thing. Happy Death Day adds value to old ideas, by combining them with other good old ideas, and making something that is essentially new. Jessica Rothe may be one of our best modern genre actresses. If there is a Groundhog God, her luck will take, and she will be in all things genre soon enough. Happy Death Day is the most charming horror around. Even when it’s doing too much, it’s doing all of it in service of having a great time. A great time is guaranteed and while a late setup for the next film may seem gratuitous, it offers enough flexibility, that we understand we’ll keep reliving this franchise as often as we need to. Because we need genre films that deliver as much unadulterated joy as Happy Death Day.