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‘Happy Death Day 2U’ and the Danger of Explaining the Bit

‘Happy Death Day’ was a box office hit and a delightful blast of teen horror comedy in the vein of ‘Scream.’ Its sequel is an unfortunate example of what happens when a wonderful stand-alone movie gets franchised.

Universal/Ringer illustration

In 2012, veteran character actor Eddie Deezen revealed that the original screenplay for Groundhog Day—a movie that he didn’t act in, for the record—explained why Bill Murray’s weatherman became trapped in Punxsutawneyian purgatory: A vengeful lover cast a spell to teach Phil Connors a lesson about the dangers of being a manipulative, egocentric asshole.

That subtext of self-improvement-through-suffering is still present in Groundhog Day, but the ultimate decision by screenwriters Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis to jettison the crazy-ex exposition is arguably what makes it a classic: a genuinely existentialist Hollywood comedy to rank with Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit and Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel. Groundhog Day is great because of the tension between its rigorous, rules-based comedic structure—the way it conditions us to recognize, anticipate, and dread the verbal, physical, and situational repetitions of its protagonist’s plight—and the absence of any supernatural or scientific rationale for what he’s going through. Like all fables, it works primarily in the realm of archetype and allegory. The inexplicability of the setup isn’t a plot hole—it’s the source of the work’s power and profundity.

Christopher Landon’s 2017 Happy Death Day isn’t a modern classic on the level of Groundhog Day. But it absorbed its lessons as surely as it borrowed its Sisyphean gimmick, and the result was one of the most pleasantly surprising—and surprisingly profitable—genre films of the past few years. It’s a witty, confident, and inventive Blumhouse entry with a bit more satirical bite than usual. By substituting a sleepy small town with a college campus and an underachieving sorority girl for a middle-aged weatherman, Landon and writer Scott Lobdell got to play with the tropes of the post-Scream campus slasher movie, with Jessica Rothe’s heroine Tree emerging as an ingenious variation on the idea of the Final Girl. An acerbic loner with a withering glare, she’s tough, determined, self-aware, and doomed all the same. For whatever reason, her fate is to face—and be murdered by—a mysterious masked serial killer before waking up in the morning to do it all again.

Call it save-point cinema, with the bonus-life metaphysics of video games bumping up against an anxious absurdism expressed in the language of multiplex moviemaking. One good example of this trend is Doug Liman’s 2014 near-masterpiece Edge of Tomorrow, a movie about the pleasure of seeing the indestructible Tom Cruise die over and over again. I haven’t started watching Netflix’s Russian Doll, but it’s been compared to Groundhog Day as well. Whether or not the proliferation of such narratives is a response to the predictability of so much mainstream entertainment is a question worth asking, and yet if Happy Death Day was meant as a commentary on genre, it made its points so entertainingly and unpretentiously that nobody noticed.

It also served as a showcase for a potential major talent. It’s not an overstatement to compare Rothe’s wearily resourceful cosmic-counterpuncher persona to Murray’s work in Groundhog Day, with hints of vintage Anna Faris. An accomplished physical comedian with a deadpan style and a withering glare, she’s equally adept at stylizing herself into a walking sight gag and nailing every aggrieved reaction shot. On a plot level, Happy Death Day is a bit too convoluted—the identity of the killer is at once predictable and unsatisfying—but it’s got the energy of a classic. It leaves you wanting more.

Be careful, I guess, what you wish for. Arriving 16 months after its predecessor’s unexpected $125 million windfall—i.e., not quite long enough to have plausible deniability as a cash-in—Happy Death Day 2U is a disappointment, even though in some ways it’s every bit the equal of its predecessor. Landon, who was a writer on Paranormal Activity, remains gifted at using rhythm and repetition to get laughs, and establishes a sense of visual and stylistic continuity with the original. Rothe is, once again, excellent. What’s good about HDD2U is how closely it evokes the first installment. What’s bad is that it violates the cardinal rule about not providing exposition. Everything that went unanswered about Happy Death Day gets explained, and it almost doesn’t matter whether the explanations themselves are any good. The impulse is the mistake.

In terms of tone, Happy Death Day 2U represents a lateral move away from the horror genre and toward sci-fi—specifically, a strain of ’80s-style revenge-of-the-nerds narratives à la Weird Science, Misfits of Science, and, at the top of the heap, Back to the Future. Within the first 10 minutes, it’s established that Tree’s ordeal was the by-product of a group of physics students (played by an appealing, multicultural collection of actors including the returning Phi Vu) testing out a homemade particle accelerator, which ended up creating a time loop that just happened to entrap her at its center. “It didn’t have anything to do with me,” Tree says to her boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard), coming to terms with the fact that the universe wasn’t trying to tell her something after all.

Tree’s need to break out of a metaphorical rut while trying to sort out the whims of the space-time continuum gave Happy Death Day its emotional core. The idea of a college girl who just can’t keep from being murdered is borderline sadistic, but Landon exploited it in a way that was both efficient and weirdly, admirably ethical. By eschewing extreme gore, Landon kept viewers from getting off on Tree’s various death(s), denying his audience the money shots that decades of slasher films have turned into a debased currency. The evil-baby mask worn by the murderer felt like a joke on the infantile meanness of an entire subgenre; the real focus was on Tree’s adaptability with each press of the reset button.

This time out, Tree is even more proactive about the whole live-each-day-like-it’s-your-last thing, opting to compulsively die by suicide in order to deny the killer—whose identity, like countless other details, has shifted with the creation of the second parallel time loop she’s working to close—his or her daily dose of satisfaction. Again, shades of Groundhog Day, except that Tree’s increasingly ridiculous methods of self-harm are so clearly staged for our benefit—as opposed to a believable desire to avoid pain and suffering—that they raise questions about the logic of what we’re watching, which is the last thing you want in a movie predicated on paradoxes.

The other big liability in Happy Death Day 2U is the encroaching emo-ness of its screenplay. In the first film, the revelation that Tree’s mother is dead, and its effect on her inner life and outlook, worked nicely as a form of character shorthand. When Tree finds out that her mom is still alive in her new reality, it’s meant to be an emotional moment that reconfigures the entire gimmick of the series. It fails, partly because Landon and Lobdell turn the character into a boring, saintly paragon and partly because the choice it forces Tree to make about which dimension she’d rather occupy is at once predictable and contrived.

This is not material designed to support any real amount of dramatic or emotional plausibility, and Happy Death Day 2U finally collapses under the weight of its own ambitions, as well as some unfortunate forays into slapstick involving Tree’s airheaded roommate Danielle (Rachel Matthews) that seem transported in from a Disney Channel movie. What’s supposed to be funny here is the incredibly intricate lengths Tree must go to—dragging others along the way—just to get back to where she was at the end of the first movie. What’s really at stake, though, is the sense of satisfaction that came from enjoying a smart, well-thought-out movie. Landon and his team took a calculated risk by trying to turn a one-shot into a franchise and they know it, which is why at one point, while trying to explain the quantum-mechanics aspect of the story, a character concludes that “It’s like Back to the Future II.” That’s exactly right, and it’s as good an explanation of what’s wrong with this movie as anything else I can come up with, although if they end up sending Jessica Rothe to the Old West for Happy D3ath Day I can’t pretend I won’t follow her there happily.