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LOOPER GIRL RETURNS
Happy Death Day 2U (15)
Director: Christopher Landon
Review: David Stephens
One of the sleeper hits from 2017 was an unlikely suspect, and something that pretty much mashed together the core concepts from “Groundhog Day” and “Scream”, with a twist of “Mean Girls” humour. As wacky that sounded on paper, “Happy Death Day” managed to please both a general audience, and those of us who are die-hard genre fans. That was pretty good going for a PG-13 horror that was relatively bloodless and without a “name” in the cast. Reviews were almost universally positive, with many praising the way that the slasher tropes were played with, and for Jessica Rothe’s highly engaging performance as a Final Girl who gets to actually die many times before finally unmasking her killer. The Blumhouse film went on to gross over $125m worldwide from a mere $4.8m budget, so a sequel being announced wasn’t entirely unexpected news. Director Christopher Landon and Rothe both hinted that this would explore the cause for Tree’s time-loop, and producer Jason Blum said that he would like to eventually see a trilogy with a different genre for each movie. And so here is the promised sequel, which has been released globally around Valentine’s Day. YGROY rinses, repeats, and returns to Tree Gelbman’s worst day ever…
It’s Tuesday September the 19th, one day after Theresa "Tree" Gelbman (Rothe) had her birthday and spent a hellish 24 hours stuck in a time-loop, continually being murdered by “Babyface”. The climactic defeat of that masked killer has somehow jolted her from the anomaly, and she hopes for a happy future with Carter (Israel Broussard) and a new outlook on life. So it comes as something of a shock to find Carter’s roommate (Phi Vu returning as Ryan Phan) suddenly complain of “déjà vu” and predicting his own death at the hands of a Baby-Masked psycho. Obviously open to the possibility of another victim suffering the same fate that she did, Tree and Carter immediately investigate and unexpectedly find another unlikely killer and the source of the temporal shenanigans. However this causes a string of events that sees another time-loop come into force, although things aren’t what they initially appear to be… there still seems to be another Babyface at large.
Like some people, we have to admit that we let a frustrated sigh out when the crew behind this sequel hinted that it would be moving away from the slasher tropes. And that isn’t just us being predictable or disgruntled horror-addicts. It’s just that it worked so well as a central concept in the first film. A “Scream”-type whodunnit meshed perfectly with the character growth exhibited by the lead during the “Groundhog Day” scenario. The fact that Rothe totally embodied the character and gave us a Scream Queen/Final Girl that was perfect for the 10s, was just the icing on the (Birthday) cake. It didn’t matter that the cause for the wraparound day was never explained. That never hurt “Groundhog Day”, and it didn’t matter here. However, if HDD was “Scream” vs. “Groundhog Day”, then HDD2U is “Back to the Future – Part II” vs. “Sliding Doors”. But despite plenty of warmth and wit and another winning performance from Rothe… it feels a bit of a mixed bag and lacking when compared to the original.
It starts well (although you’ll be struggling if you haven’t seen HDD), with plenty of riffs and nods, indicating that another character could be at the centre of a time-loop. And if the barely-explained (literal) plot device for the origin of it is a little underwhelming and predictable, the surprise appearance of a new Babyface is handled really well. The sequence where he stalks a victim in plain sight in a crowded corridor of other masked students is a definite highlight. But when we get to the real meat of the narrative and everything goes “loopy” again (heh!), it stops feeling so original and more than a little derivative of HDD. You have to admire the lengths that writer/director Landon has gone to try to give this follow-up some legs of its own, and we won’t spoil the complications that make this a “new” day for Tree, but it doesn’t always work or feel as tight as its predecessor. For a start, Tree has already developed into the best version of herself that she can be, so here she has to react to the changes around her on a more emotional level. This sees her surprisingly save some characters and make some tough choices. If the first film was about making mistakes to find yourself (i.e. die a lot), this one is about making sacrifices to live your life right. Unfortunately, this also means that the harder-edged and farcical tone of the first film is lost on slightly sappy goodbyes and soul-searching.
Babyface is still there, but he’s pretty much buried under the angst caused by the various situations thrown up by this time-loop. Which is a shame because this time the killer’s motive and unveiling is arguably handled better than in HDD. The fact that the cast has been opened up with “Big Bang Theory”-inspired characters means that Tree is believed straight away instead of the lonely struggle she had to endure before, with only Carter ever helping her. That’s not to say that Ms Gelbman isn’t less of a strong-willed lead here. In fact the best moments come when she goes full Final Girl again or total Action Heroine, complete with brilliantly crappy one-liners (“You’re Screwed!”). And whilst it isn’t as good as the similar montage for HDD, her string of suicide attempts bears comparison with Bill Murray’s self-destruction scenes in “Groundhog Day”. Rothe continues to shine effortlessly here, but whilst it’s great that she has this franchise under her belt, you wish that she would get the lead in a balls-to-the-wall action/comedy/horror to really let flex her acting muscles and charisma.
At the end of the day… At the end of the day… (Sorry, couldn’t resist). This isn’t a bad film and provides plenty of easy-going and witty entertainment. But the move away from its slasher origins, and the fact that much of the narrative is re-mixed ideas from HDD itself, takes away some of the inventive edginess from the franchise. The fact that “Back to the Future” is openly name-checked a number of times points to the direction taken here. (NB: Check out Tree’s speedometer during the electrical plant car scene and the owner of the Tree shredder). Whilst there’s still a masked killer and (sort-of) whodunnit again, the tone often veers towards a wacky 80s High-School comedy like “My Science Project” (Google it. It’s nuts!) rather than something that the horror-tinged marketing promises. This can also be seen when the plot descends into faux “Clouseau” slapstick and a comedy heist caper near the climax! It seems mean picking away at this mostly entertaining romp, but with HDD working so well, hopes were high that this could “repeat” the success of that outing. In all honesty, it hasn’t. It’s clever lightweight fun, but sadly somewhat below expectations. A post-credit scene promises a possible comedic third entry, but this Tree might need replanting.
It’s still fun, it still has one of the most charismatic actresses around as its lead, and it’s smart. But you can’t help feeling that despite numerous tricks being played with the format, the shift away from the horror genre was a mistake and that the best moments are rehashed ideas from the first film. Several abrupt shifts in tone spoil the pacing as well. Rothe still rules, but perhaps Tree needs a rest.
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