Stalk-and-kill movies bear some resemblance to classic farces, but no horror movies have taken the similarities as far as Happy Death Day and its busier, just-as-fun sequel, Happy Death 2 U. The new film repeats some of the original material but with even more madcap permutations, along with the introduction of a time-looping machine known as “Sissy” (for Sisyphus Quantum Cooling Reactor) that opens — in defiance of its science-nerd creators’ intentions — a portal to the multiverse. Multiverses, needless to say, create permutations by definition, and so the college-girl heroine, Tree (Jessica Rothe), now wakes up in a world that’s a variation, for better and worse, on her old one.
A word about her old one: It was Groundhog Day meets Scream, and featured the lively and resourceful comedian Rothe as the birthday-girl heroine, “Tree” (short for Katrina? Patricia?), who was casually contemptuous of everyone but was humanized by being stabbed, strangled, or blown up at the end of every day, at which point she woke up in the bed of a curly haired cutie named Carter (Israel Broussard) and did it all again, with another chance to discover who her stalker was under a pig-baby mask with its one little tooth.
The key to the success of the original Happy Death Day was in the day-to-day variations. Midway through, director Christopher Landon and writer Charles Lobdell (mostly known for X-Men comics and an associated ’90s TV series) accelerated the action to a screwball frenzy. That’s when the picture came alive — when it was almost abstract, when flurries of previously seen images came at you from new angles and Tree struggled to find her sea legs.
What’s italicized above repeats (with slight changes) my original review, which also pointed out that a big problem for Tree was that many students had that mask, a college-team mascot. A bigger problem was, who didn’t want to kill her? Could it be … Carter whose bed she woke up in every new/same day with a colossal hangover — but whom she humiliatingly spurns? (“I’m in a dorm?”) The moist-eyed boy (Caleb Spillyards) she dated and ghosted? The roommate (Ruby Modine) she derided, the sorority alpha-beeyotch (Rachel Matthews) whose boyfriend she hooked up with, the professor (Charles Aitken) she slept with, or the professor’s wife, who found them together in his office with the door closed? And how about that slobbery serial killer (Rob Mello) the police had in custody but wasn’t so easy to keep down?
They’re all back in Happy Birthday 2 U (again directed by Landon), although it opens with another character, Ryan (Phi Vu), experiencing the same day twice thanks to the aforementioned Sissy, which is his invention. At first, you think the film will be Ryan’s story, but when Sissy blows up we’re with Tree again — who’s incensed to find herself back to square one, although it turns out to be square 1.2. This wears on her, if you remember. Unlike Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s time-stuttering hero was physically unaffected, Tree wakes up weaker each day, with internal bruising, increasingly bedraggled and desperate. In 2 U, she still doesn’t know how many times she’ll have to die to get back to her own universe and solve a new set of murders with an almost-new (the same but different) set of characters. To spare herself the pain of being murdered every day, she kills herself in inventive ways to the jolly accompaniment of Paramore’s “Hard Times” (I particularly liked her dive into the mulcher), then returns to the science nerds (a jolly group, led by Vu’s Ryan plus Suraj Sharma as guilty-porn-downloader Shamar and the delightful Sarah Yarkin as “Dre”) to help them devise a new set of equations. She has to explain her situation again but happily for us, the recaps — as in the time-looping Edge of Tomorrow — are elided.
There’s something seriously different about Happy Death Day 2 U: the appearance in the multiverse of Tree’s mom (Missy Yager), who was dead in the first film. This creates all sorts of issues for Tree as well as the audience. I cried — along with Tree — in these scenes, which slows the comic momentum but stretches a one-joke movie into something with lasting power. I imagine that Landon (who wrote the script by himself this time) found himself in an unexpected place and was probably as surprised as we are. Multiverses don’t just introduce permutations. They pose the question, “Who would I be if [fill in the blank] had or hadn’t happened?”
As Danielle, the president of Tree’s sorority in the first film, Rachel Matthews was ridiculously broad but I grew to like her energy, and this time Matthews takes her blithe insouciance to another level. Helping the main characters distract the insufferable dean (Steve Zissis), her Annabelle pretends to be both French and blind, knocking down furniture and walloping the dean with her cane. Watching this slapstick vaudeville sketch, I thanked Landon out loud for a premise elastic enough to make room for such silliness.
Though broadly speaking a comedy, Happy Death Day 2 U delivers a horror climax that’s like Scream, only it’s five minutes long instead of two wearying hours. The only sour note was a denouement that I hope doesn’t signal an attempt at a three-peat. Let’s hope that in this universe, they leave two enough alone.