It’s not often I get giddy at the prospect of seeing a movie. It certainly hasn’t been that way for a while as I sigh a weary sigh at the films I need to see out of a feeling of obligation. Sure, they generally turn out well with a couple even providing some unexpected pleasures, but Oscar season always instills a sense that my film choices are being selected for me for better or worse. So, it’s a nice change to have a release date that I had penciled into my schedule as a movie I wanted to see right away for no reason other than I just couldn’t wait another day to see it. I even had the advantage of it being moved up a day and the first showtimes being during the day instead of having to wait until 7. Fucking jackpot.
The first Happy Death Day was a film I expected or at least hoped to be amusingly silly based on its goofy title straight out of the 1980s, a delightful poster to go with it, and its Groundhog’s Day premise. Instead, it turned out to be a surprise, unironic delight and one of my favorite films of 2017. The premise was a large part of the success to be sure, but the lead Jessica Rothe was the one who was asked to carry the entire film, a task that she handled with aplomb and a fantastic, breakout performance. As with any successful film, especially a horror title and one from Blumhouse, there must be a sequel, and while I questioned how the writers (with the original director Christopher Landon taking over for original writer Scott Lobdell in that department) could make it work considering the pretty neat way the first one had been tied up, I was still excited to see more, because Rothe’s Tree Gelbman was just a fun character watch grow over the course of the movie and I was looking forward to more of her and more silly PG-13 deaths.
The concern about how they were going to continue the story was one that was warranted since it’s clear that Landon wasn’t quite sure about how to go about that either. This is not going to be an easy film to talk about without going into spoilers since the film is set up in large part by a twist somewhat early on. It’s not a spoiler though to say that the film lacks the singular hook of the first film and spends the whole movie looking for it. It darts between different ideas to be sure, teasing out different possibilities for the sequel (some not as good as others), but it can’t quite commit to one.
The film also moves out of the realm of the supernatural and into that of sci-fi by providing a concrete explanation for whole time loop. On the one hand, it’s probably nice that the film isn’t quite so directly copying Groundhog’s Day with its moral loop, but it does deflate the satisfaction such a plot achieves. Wisely, the plot is able to recover somewhat, largely again thanks to Rothe and her acting ability, by making this disappointment a part of the film’s very fabric. While it does remove much of the mystery of the whole time loop and there seems to be a good deal of retconning here (Tree mentions dying eleven times, but I seem to recall her dying far more than that or at least the film implied it was far more than that), it does at least give them a new direction to build off of.
It just takes a long while to get going as the film has to set everything up. There’s an increased focus on the supporting characters this time around and they are without fail less interesting than Rothe. When she’s not on the screen, much of the charm of the film is lost as their antics just don’t really hit. The film has leaned even further into the comedy side of comedy-horror to the point that the baby faced killer can feel simultaneously a bit extraneous to the plot and yet the film tries a bit too hard to keep them involved. There’s a mystery of who’s behind the mask, but the film hardly cares, and I cared even less.
The birthday theme of the first one is still hanging off of this movie, but it’s lost any thematic significance and now largely exists as somewhere above a token nod to the first. Mentioned enough that it is noticeable, but not having any real effect on anything. Like the mystery element of the first, there’s just nothing really to replace it though. Maybe a pseudo-Valentine’s Day type theme with all the talk of love being thrown around, but it’s not nearly as interesting a one.
I’ve mostly talked about how the film hasn’t lived up to the first and my expectations, but the core is still there and still works. Rothe gives a great comedic and emotional performance and watching Tree continue to grow, change, and deal with the situations is still worth the price of admissions. The kills may not be as numerous feeling, inspired, or spread out, but they have a good sense of dark comedic timing. I appreciate that they didn’t just go for same exact thing again without losing the sense of identity the original had and I still had a really good time, it’s just that they could have stood to have been much more focused. It’s not a lesser sequel from losing that surprise appeal or trying to recapture a lightning in a bottle, it’s just one that I didn’t quite succeed as well in what it was trying to do.