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Non-Review Review: Happy Death Day 2 U

“You mean this is all about money?” asks a confused grad student early in Happy Death Day 2 U, as a stubborn college dean shuts down his (frankly reckless science experiment. The dean explains that the college is primarily interested in cultivating intellectual property and patents, which comes as news to his more innocent students. The dean protests, bluntly, “Somebody has to keep the lights on around here.”

It’s an odd exchange within an odd film, and one that makes relatively little sense in the context of the story being told. however, it feels like a very revealing exchange in terms of the logic underlying Happy Death Day 2 U. The original Happy Death Day was a cinematic highlight of 2017. Somewhat (and fairly) overshadowed by Get Out, the original film was a playful and self-aware slasher movie hybrid which worked as both a charming example of the genre and broad critique of the exhausting and repetitive nature of such films.

Masking his intentions.

Happy Death Day was the story of a young woman who finds herself trapped reliving the same day over and over, facing a masked serial killer and getting murdered in a variety of inventive ways before resetting to do it all over again. Within that premise was a clear critique of horror franchise formulas that tended to trap protagonists within these familiar frameworks over and over and over again. In that context, Happy Death Day 2 U seems almost redundant. Tree has already lived the same story twelve times. What could a sequel possibly add, beyond some dollars to the bottom line?

It is to the credit of Happy Death Day 2 U that the film inherently and intrinsically understands this. Happy Death Day 2 U is a messy and awkward film, but it is crystal clear in at least one respect. Happy Death Day 2 U knows exactly what sort of film it doesn’t want to be. Unfortunately, it never seems entirely certain of the film that it does want to be.

Stab me, Baby, one more time.

It’s hard to tell who exactly is the target audience for Happy Death Day 2 U. Fans drawn to the original Happy Death Day for its twist on slasher movie dynamics and its inventive commitment to mass murder are unlikely to be entirely satisfied by what Happy Death Day 2 U has to offer. Watching the movie, it often seems like Happy Death Day 2 U is much more interested in the question of what it means to be a sequel than it is in offering audience members more of what they (presumably) liked about Happy Death Day.

Happy Death Day was a breakout hit, a high-concept horror with charm to burn that grew through word of mouth. It was smart enough to rise above so many of the early year horrors, but efficient enough to hit all of its marks. (Again and again and again.) It could be sold as Groundhog Day meets Scream, four words that told the audience exactly what to expect from the film in question. Although the emphasis on that elevator-pitch premise sells the film short – particularly writer-and-director Christopher Landon and lead Jessica Rothe – it explains a lot about the film’s almost-viral success.

One of the most striking features of Happy Death Day 2 U is the manner in which the film steadfastly refuses to put Tree through the same ringer for presumably twelve more iterations. Indeed, a not-insignificant portion of Happy Death Day 2 U is given over to Tree asserting control of her own narrative, and angrily refusing to be defined as a perpetual “final girl.” Despite the fact that Happy Death Day 2 U goes out of its way to trap Tree within the exact same day as the first film, Tree seems more capable of escaping her past (and genre) than other final girls like Sidney Prescott or Laurie Strode.

Happy Death Day 2 U refuses to trap Tree in another slasher movie cycle. Most obviously, the baby-faced killer is an almost incidental character this time around. The killer is a marginal figure and an afterthought. The killer’s story, as much as it exists, unfolds at the edge of the frame and without any real emphasis on the dynamics at play. In fact, the identity and motivations of the killer in Happy Death Day 2 U are barely articulated within the film itself, often feeling like recycled concepts from an earlier draft of Happy Death Day.

A stab in the dark.

It is not accurate to describe Happy Death Day 2 U as a horror sequel; in fact, it seems hostile to the whole concept. It is more accurate to describe Happy Death Day 2 U as a Tree-centric movie that occasionally and fleetingly intersects with horror. The murderous mayhem in Happy Death 2 U is explicitly somebody else’s story. It is contained, both narratively and geographically. One of the movie’s most interesting choices is to consciously isolate Tree from the killer, to allow her to enter and exit the horror narrative as much (or as little) as she chooses.

Of course, this creates an imbalance within Happy Death Day 2 U. If it is not a horror movie, but it is a sequel to a horror movie, then what is it? Happy Death Day 2 U is a film that largely defines its identity in terms of being a cinematic follow-up. Its closest cinematic relative is probably Back to the Future II, which gets namedropped early in the script along with a host of nonsense franchise jargon. As the characters try to explain the sort of clumsy pseudo-science that is often grafted into sequels like this to provide a sense of scale, Tree sighs, “Do I look like I know what a multiverse is?”

Happy Death Day was essentially about trapping an unwilling protagonist in a slasher narrative, and Happy Death Day 2 U becomes a story about trapping that unwilling protagonist in a sequel. There is a sense of exhaustion and fatigue about all of this, a sense that both Tree and the movie itself are just so over it. This creates an interesting tension within the film, where the overriding emotion is not fear or tension, but something approaching boredom. There are even hints of knowing contempt to it all, as if mocking the very idea of making a sequel to Happy Death Day.

This most obviously manifests itself in the speed with which Happy Death Day 2 U rushes through the standard low-budget sequel trappings. The opening few minutes are spent on a character other than Jessica, trapping a supporting (and presumably more affordable) actor from the first film in a time loop as the most obvious way of making a sequel – just do exactly the same thing again, but with a different character. Then the movie instead offers a whole host of nonsense technobabble and deeply unnecessary explanations for the first film – just do exactly the same thing again, but with added “mythology.”

Scream queen.

There is something approaching nihilism in all of this, as if aware of the fact that the existence of a sequel threatens undercutting the value and appeal of Happy Death Day. Early in the film, after being provided with a pseudo-scientific explanation for the events of the first movie, Tree laments that such techno-babble effectively robs the original of any weight or meaning. “I thought it was happening for a reason,” Tree states, almost crying. Now it seems like all of this is happening for no reason whatsoever.

While audiences might expect Back to the Future II meets Scream, Happy Death Day 2 U instead offers Back to the Future II meets Groundhog Day with just a dash of Scream II thrown in for flavour. This is a movie that very pointedly intercuts it’s catch-the-killer climax with a goofy low-stakes prank-the-stuffy-dean subplot complete with cartoon logic and a terrible accent. The clash of tones that feels very deliberate, and very much a point of itself. Happy Death Day 2 U has given the audience a sequel, but feels almost unbeholden to them otherwise.

It’s hard to say that any of this really works. In particular, the film assumes an emotional investment in Tree that doesn’t always feel earned. The central moral dilemma of the movie is a lot meatier than most slasher movies, and shows a strong commitment to character. It hinges on a choice that Tree has to make between her past and her future, arguably working better as a meta-commentary on the redundancy of this sequel than as an emotional hook of itself. Frankly, the characters around Tree are not developed enough for Tree’s decisions about them to carry any real weight. It’s a major flaw with the film.

And, yet, in spite of all of that, there are moments when Happy Death Day 2 U almost comes together. Tree remains a wonderful slasher movie protagonist, even removed from her original slasher movie context. It helps that Jessica Rothe has incredible charisma. At several points in the film, Happy Death Day 2 U is able to salvage a strange narrative choice or some awkward dialogue simply by cutting to Rothe’s deadpan reaction. Tree is just over the whole timeloop thing, which makes it easier to get on board with the movie’s quite blatant cynicism.

Tree’s company.

This is, after all, a film in which the lead character commits suicide repeatedly so as to deny a slasher villain the pleasure of killing her. It is a bold narrative choice, and one that becomes even darker once the plot mechanics are fully exposed at the climax of the story. (Taking everything at face value, Happy Death Day 2 U‘s narrative cynicism applies to its own story; the film’s ending emphasises its own lack of necessity.) The suicide montage is very clever and very self-aware, not least when it becomes clear that Tree’s suicide attempts are being chosen for spectacle (for the audience) rather than for her own comfort.

There is something incredibly dark in that montage, particularly when it is revealed that Tree’s multiple suicides are taking a very real toll on her body and her health. Tree’s suicides are performative, for the benefit of the viewers. Tree might have escaped the killer in the baby mask, but is still subject to the whims of the horror movie audience and the larger cinematic market place. Ironically, the success of Happy Death Day has confined Tree to another round of torture and suffering for the amusement of those watching. It’s very shrewd and very canny. It  good.

2 Responses

  1. I agree completely that this movie is a “Tree-centric movie”. I think anyone who enjoyed Happy Death Day will want to see that movie, since the gimmick of the first movie, like all the rest of it, rests completely on Rothe’s performance as Tree and Landon’s writing and directing for Rothe as Tree. Tree is the reason any of this works at all.

    That’s not a function of Tree being the one in the Bill-Murray-in-GroundhogDay role of the first movie, but a function of how bad you expect the movie to be, or how you think it might be good for a laugh, and then it’s about Rothe playing Tree, and you are shocked because this movie should be bad, or good for a laugh, and it’s not exactly a good movie, but Rothe playing Tree steamrolls the rest of the movie so completely that you will probably tell someone at some point, “I saw this movie…” in a strange tone of voice. And it’s not just Rothe’s performance, but the character of Tree through Landon’s work, as you point out. The climactic confrontation of the first movie is not even shaped like the tension-reliever you’d find in a horror movie. It’s the climax of a Tree-centric movie instead, and it’s pretty funny.

    Tree is not a final girl in the first movie, I don’t think. Tree does not start the movie as an outsider in the role of an insider. Tree does not appear to walk into the story with any particular insight into her world that would make us identify with her as a movie audience watching her life unfold, or with any particular curiosity about that world. We don’t know if Tree’s parents understand her or not, because that question transforms into one of the movie’s recurring punchlines at Tree’s unwitting expense. Tree is “not likable” in the way that certain critics complained that Arrested Development‘s characters were “not likable”. Crank her up another notch, and Tree might be one of Xanthippe’s friends on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

    Tree is called Tree, which is usually found a few times in the comments for any review of these movies by people who haven’t seen it: “Tree? Really?” And if you watch the movie, of course, the name does so much to establish the character so quickly based on what we might think of a girl called Tree who behaves like Tree does, and those comments provide absolute proof it will work. This is important, because if we didn’t rubberneck at Tree’s choices, we would not care what happened to her. Landon and Rothe seem perfectly in tune with this problem and how to solve it, even if all the spinning plates begin to wobble after those first few minutes. In those minutes, the movie sees itself through the eyes of a skeptic and convinces them that it understands and is on their side, and it is sincere, as far as I can tell.

    I don’t want to talk too much about the sequel, because while I don’t usually care about “spoilers”, but this sort of movie… it would be like patiently explaining everything that a Rube Goldberg machine does before it starts up in front of someone, even one that probably won’t run its entire routine to completion. Happy Death Day 2 U is not spooky or shocking or full of unpredictable twists and turns. It’s just a movie about Tree that takes place in the only world in which Tree lives, and maybe the only world in which she could ever live. It works for me.

    • Yep. I am not sure it’s good – as you say – but I am glad that it exists, and I like that it took the form that it did. If that makes sense.

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