“Happy Death Day,” which could be described as “Groundhog Day”-meets-”Scream,” shouldn’t have been good.
Same goes for its wittily-titled sequel, “Happy Death Day 2U,” which is not only good, it also manages to deepen the characters that were so silly and lovable in the first film.
The 2017 original focused on college student Tree (Jessica Rothe), who found herself waking up on the day of her birthday, in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), again and again until she figured out a way to stop a serial killer in a babyface mask.
The sequel — again directed by Christopher Landon, who also gets the writing credit, taking over for Scott Lobdell — begins shortly after.
Carter’s roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) begins experiencing a loop of his own, a bad day that culminates in his science project, a quantum reactor, being confiscated by the Dean (Steve Zissis).
It turns out Ryan’s invention was the cause of the time-loop in the first film. (It’s a nice moment when Tree reveals her disappointment that it wasn’t a cosmic occurrence.)
A freaked-out Ryan fires up the machine once more, hoping to end his time loop, but ends up sending Tree into another one. This time, however, things are not the same. Carter is dating Tree’s fellow sorority girl and arch-rival Danielle (Rachel Matthews), and Tree’s mother (Missy Yager) is alive.
Rothe, whose performances register more Meryl Streep than scream queen, demonstrates an impressive grasp of her character’s emotional range, especially the uncharted territory of a time loop, and has the skill to pull it off.
The screenplay by Landon (whose writing credits include four “Paranormal Activity” movies) follows the question: “And then what happened?,” ramping up Tree’s predicament and throwing new obstacles in her path, but also making the movie feel splayed.
In one sequence, when Ryan and his nerd pals Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin) try to program their device to send Tree back home, she has to memorize failed algorithms so they can try a new one each reset day. Landon sets it as a silly montage, a music video that seems unaware of how cliché it is.
At another point, when the crew needs a distraction, Danielle is called upon to play a blind French woman to upend the Dean’s quarters and steal his keys. It’s like a bad slapstick sequence in a “Pink Panther” sequel.
Ultimately, “Happy Death Day 2U” is not a horror film. It has a few stalker-like moments, but nothing too scary or gory. It’s so busy and silly, it almost forgets the horror motif.
Yet it works because of its core story, and because it feels handmade — scrappy and put together with enthusiasm and love.
Credit goes to producer Jason Blum, whose impressive list of horror films and franchises includes “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” “Creep,” “Ouija,” “Unfriended,” and, notably, “Get Out.”
His policy of keeping budgets low and giving filmmakers control could save the film industry and make movies more interesting.
Happy Death Day 2U
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma
Written and directed by: Christopher Landon
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes