2019 Film Essays

‘Happy Death Day 2U’ Drops the Scares, Doubles Down on Sci-Fi

That Happy Death Day 2U opens on a bobblehead of the enigmatic inventor Nikola Tesla and not, say, one of crazed killer Jason Voorhees says it all; it’s a mission statement. If you come to this movie looking for a blood-curdling slasher, you’re in the wrong multiverse… err, multiplex. Happy Death Day 2U is a light sci-fi movie with the thinnest veneer of horror, and your enjoyment of the film will depend on your willingness to accept its geeky premise and nonexistent scare factor.

In the first film, college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) basically lives out a Groundhog Day. Unlike Bill Murray, though, she gets killed by a baby-masked killer every day and can’t get out of her time loop until she solves her own murder. Much to her dismay, Tree again finds herself caught in a loop in Happy Death Day 2U, but this time around she knows the cause. See, Ryan (Phi Vu), who plays the comic relief roommate from the first film, and his cadre of Big Bang Theory-level lab partners, have built a device that, when fired up, creates infinite multiverses… or something. As a result of their experiment, Tree is again stuck reliving the same day, only this time she has to keep leaping until she gets back to her correct dimension — like Quantum Leap minus all that fancy history stuff.

There are still some kills here and there, but Happy Death Day 2U is a largely bloodless affair. Director and co-writer Christopher Landon is more concerned with exploring the possibilities of quantum mechanics than he is in delivering a horror film. That’s not necessarily a knock against it, though, just an observation. If you dig that sort of stuff — if you get off on movies like Primer and Edge of Tomorrow, you might love this film, but Eli Roth fans might look elsewhere.

The first film featured the whole time loop thing, but it still delivered in the slasher department. This one’s the cinematic equivalent of a nerdgasm. I personally geek the heck out over stuff like time loops and multiverses (Back to the Future Part II is one of my favorites, and this film actually name drops it), so I went along for the ride. If you’re primarily a horror fan, however, you might feel a tad hoodwinked by this movie. It’s not an abrupt a shift in genre as, say, the recent Matthew McConaughey thriller Serenitythat is a bait and switch, no pun intended — but be warned, this one doubles down on the geek.

Rothe is again a treat to watch, as she pinballs from snarky to terrified to woeful. I got a little misty-eyed when she reunites with her mother, who had died in the original universe, and laughed when she jumps into a wood chipper during a suicide montage set to Paramore (yes, you read that right). It’s not the only campy, don’t-take-this-too-seriously moment of the film, either. There’s a scene in the third act (which features heist elements out of nowhere) where bitchy sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews) plays a blind French woman that really feels off-brand for a Blumhouse feature, and more fitting of some broad comedy.

Landon offers a few visual treats, such as a seamless transition of Tree falling to her death to falling in bed, but there are apparently far too many alternate dimensions and algorithms to discuss for Landon to get too caught up in making a visually striking film. This one’s about plot, not mood. And the music is just as serviceable, more fitting of a goofy sci-fi movie than a slasher. There are actually some cues that are cheekily reminiscent of Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future score.

The fact that this movie exists in the form it does, that the producers would greenlight a horror movie that’s really a sci-fi comedy flick focusing on multiverses, is insane. But, I think it’s a blast. Happy Death Day 2U is a big risk film, one that might not resonate with the typical Blumhouse moviegoer, but it’s fun, no matter what dimension you’re watching it in.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.

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