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“Happy Death Day 2U” Review: A Quality Sequel With Noticeable Flaws

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Slasher movies are one of those frustrating genres that have a lot of overdone tropes, but a handful of gems that really stand out. These movies tend to have a standard formula from which few deviates. There’s a mysterious killer on the loose. A group of attractive young people try to escape. All the promiscuous ones die while the sweet, innocent virgin who never shows her tits survives.

If you’ve seen any slasher movie after the first “Halloween” in 1978, then you’ve seen this play out any number of ways. However, it’s because that formula is so overdone that the first “Happy Death Day” felt so refreshing. When I reviewed this movie, I lauded how it injected fresh nuance into the typical horror/slasher formula. It didn’t completely abandon that formula, but it didn’t play by the rules either.

That approach paid off. The move went onto make over $125 million worldwide, despite having a budget just below $5 million. That’s a pretty good payoff for horror/slasher movie in an era where superhero movies dominate and movies that punish beautiful women for being sexy is losing favor. Not surprisingly, this success warranted a sequel in “Happy Death Day 2U.”

Considering how the first movie wrapped things up so neatly, a sequel comes with greater risk. How do you even build on a story where a young woman is stuck in a time loop where she dies at the hands of a killer every time? After the time loop ends, shouldn’t the story also end? “Happy Death Day 2U” tries to make the case that there’s still room for the story to grow.

By and large, the movie succeeds in telling that story. However, I don’t believe the movie works quite as well as the first in terms of impact and nuance. I admit I was skeptical, and even a little disappointed, when I heard that a sequel was in the works. For a movie that overtly referenced “Groundhog Day,” which never got a sequel, it seemed like it could only be counterproductive.

To some extent, those concerns were vindicated at the start of the movie. One of the things that made “Groundhog Day” such an effective concept was that we never learned what caused the time loop that trapped Phil Connors. While the cause was revealed in the original scrip to the movie, the act of not explaining the cause helped make it an effective plot device.

Happy Death Day 2U” doesn’t bother with such ambiguity. Within the first half-hour of the movie, we find out what caused Tree Gelbman to get stuck in the time loop that plagued her in the first movie. I won’t spoil too many details. I’ll just say that there’s nothing overly supernatural or subtly spiritual about it.

That’s not to say it still doesn’t work. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it adds an extra level of innovation to the horror/slasher formula that the first “Happy Death Day” did so much to alter. The stakes are different this time around, but the concept is the same. Tree is stuck in a time loop again, but the story has less to do with how she escapes and more to do with the price she pays to do so.

There isn’t quite as much mystery, but there are new complications that add a different kind of intrigue. The nature of the loop and the identity of the killer is different, this time. Motivations and obstacles are different too, but similar enough to build upon the foundation that the first movie established.

While I didn’t care for how “Happy Death Day 2U” explained the time loop, I still found myself genuinely intrigued by Tree’s journey, as well as that of her supporting cast. In the first movie, much like Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day,” Tree starts off as a selfish, arrogant, mean-spirited person who is difficult to root for. Over the course of the movie, though, she becomes more likable.

Tree’s journey in “Happy Death Day 2U” takes it even further by testing her new persona. Instead of becoming a better person by navigating the time loop, Tree is faced with a series of difficult, gut-wrenching choices. Beyond surviving the killer, escaping the time loop means paying a heavy price. Within the moments of bloody violence and messy deaths, she agonizes over that price.

That aspect of the story is what makes “Happy Death Day 2U” worth seeing. Even if it loses something by explaining the source of the time loop, it gains something by building on Tree’s story. We learn more and more about why she was such a self-loathing bitch in the first place, which makes her growth from that persona even more satisfying.

By the end of “Happy Death Day 2U,” it feels like Tree has take yet another step. She shows just how much she has grown, as a result of her experience in the time loop. It also gives even more weight to the blossoming relationship she has with Carter Davis. Her feelings for him and his feelings for her feel a lot more genuine by the time the credits roll.

As meaningful as this kind of character growth is, though, “Happy Death Day 2U” doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s still a slasher movie. Like its predecessor, it’s overtly coy with how it portrays the violence and death scenes. It’s a little gratuitous, at times. It also employs some tongue-in-cheek humor that helps balance things out.

Happy Death Day 2U” never tries to be too bloody, but never tries to be too funny, either. It takes what the first movie did and builds on the foundation. While it doesn’t feel as novel or innovative as the first, it still captures the overall spirit and style.

The movie still has flaws beyond explaining the cause of the time loop and limiting the overall mystery. Like the first one, this movie feels like it holds back at times. It probably could’ve done a lot more with an R-rating instead of a standard PG-13 rating, but there’s never a sense that the movie attempts to walk a fine line between the two.

In addition, while Tree’s character undergoes plenty of growth, Carter still doesn’t get nearly as much. We still don’t know much about who he is or what makes him tick. He still shows plenty of backbone throughout the movie, stepping up in a way that make him easy to root for, both as a character and as Tree’s love interest. It just feels like he doesn’t get his chance to shine.

There’s also the issue of needing to see the first “Happy Death Day” to understand what’s going on here. This is one of those movies where the prequel really isn’t optional if you want to appreciate everything that happens. In fact, this movie build so much upon the first that it basically acts as an extension more than a sequel.

Those flaws aside, “Happy Death Day 2U” is still a solid movie that took some considerable risks. Those risks paid off in that it further established this franchise a badly-needed shot in the arm for a genre that has become less relevant in recent years. If I had to score this movie, I would give it a solid 4 out of 5.

There is still a place for horror/slasher movies and there probably always will be. “Happy Death Day 2U” demonstrates that there’s still plenty of room for blood, violence, sex appeal, and creepy masked killers in the current cinematic landscape. John Carpenter and Wes Craven may have helped perfect that formula, but “Happy Death Day 2U” adds some new and overdue ingredients.

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How “Happy Death Day” (Surprisingly) Enriches Horror/Slasher Movies

When it comes to horror/slasher movies, it’s hard to break new ground these days. That’s because most still cling to the tried and true formula established by the likes of “Friday The 13th” and “Halloween.” That means there is usually going to be some crazed killer, some horny teenagers, and some sweet, yet sexy virgin who survives it all. You can practically set your watch to it, along with the standard jump scares.

It’s for that reason that slasher movies aren’t really as big a draw as they used to be. On top of that, they tend to be annoyingly sex negative and not in a subtle way either. If you’re a horny teenager in a slasher movie, then there’s a 99 percent chance you’ll be dead by the time the credits roll.

That’s why when a movie comes along to shake up that narrative, it’s worth noticing. That brings me to a recent horror movie that caught my intrigue and defied my expectations. It’s called “Happy Death Day” and, apart from the goofy title, it accomplishes something remarkable.

The first major accomplishment, for me personally, is that the trailer actually made me want to see the movie. In this era where every movie trailer follows a similar formula, we’ve all become fairly numb to their effects. We know what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to do it. Unless you were already planning to see the movie, as is often the case with superhero movies, then a trailer probably won’t do much.

With “Happy Death Day,” the trailer struck a chord for me because it presented a different kind of slasher/horror movie. Moreover, it did so in a way where the concept was more appealing than the actual slashing/horror. Whereas most horror movies will try to build every promotional effort around that horror, “Happy Death Day” threw something else into the mix that proved enticing.

That concept may not seem radically new, on paper. “Happy Death Day” doesn’t radically reinvent the genre as much as it innovates with established concepts. It’s basically a combination of “Friday The 13th,” “Final Destination,” and “Groundhog Day.” It uses familiar themes like masked killers, time loops, and  exceedingly elaborate scenes. However, it’s the way in which they’re presented that makes the movie work.

It also helps that the presentation is done through a beautiful female protagonist named Teresa “Tree” Gelbman, who is played by a very emotive Jessica Rothe. Beyond being a pretty face, though, Tree embodies everything audiences love to hate about beautiful, sexually active women in horror movies.

She’s shallow, callous, self-centered, dismissive, and just plain mean. I won’t say she’s on the same level as Regina George from “Mean Girls,” but she’s in the same time zone. Essentially, she’s basically a female version of Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day” in the sense that she’s a fairly reprehensible person that we’re not supposed to like from the get-go.

When someone is nice to her, she just blows them off. When someone tries to wish her a happy birthday, she just rolls her eyes. On top of that, she’s openly promiscuous, hooking up with her friends’ boyfriends and having an affair with her married teacher. By every measure, this is a girl who should be at the top of Jason Voorhees’ kill list.

However, “Happy Death Day” actually digs a bit deeper than “Groundhog Day” in that, over the course of the movie, we learn why Tree is the way she is. She isn’t just bitchy for the sake of being bitchy. There’s a reason for it and as the movie goes on, it’s hard not to root for her as she struggles against her killer.

Speaking of her killer, that’s another part about “Happy Death Day” that stands out. Unlike Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, there’s never a sense that this killer is someone to root for. In typical slasher movies, it’s easy to root for the killer because they have a certain personality or charisma to them. That’s not the case here. In a sense, the killer in this movie is less a person and more deadly obstacle for Tree to overcome.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the killer because that would be getting into spoiler territory. I enjoyed this movie enough to actually want people to go and see it or rent it. This movie definitely is worth seeing because it doesn’t play out entirely like a traditional slasher/horror movie. There are twists and turns that help it stand out.

That leads me to one of the most unique and intriguing elements of “Happy Death Day.” Unlike so many other slasher movies, this movie doesn’t implicitly penalize characters for being overly sexual. I won’t go so far as to say it’s sex positive, like the “Deadpool” movie. Essentially, it’s entirely sex neutral and for a horror movie, that’s still pretty remarkable.

What happens to Tree in “Happy Death Day” has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a beautiful young woman who enjoys having sex for the fun of it. If you take away the sex, but keep the rest of her personality traits intact, she’s still the same person. She would still be subject to the same horrors that unfold throughout the movie.

Her being trapped in an endless cycle of being killed and re-killed has little to do with her promiscuity and everything to do with what a rotten person she is. That’s the part of her that puts her in the crosshairs of a killer. Overcoming that rotten persona is every bit the struggle as the one that involves running from a psycho-killer.

Needless to say, it gets pretty chaotic and messy. Being a horror/slasher movie,  “Happy Death Day” has more than its share of gratuitous violence and bloodshed. That’s one horror element that this movie doesn’t try to subvert, but it doesn’t have to. It just makes it work in a whole new way.

Now, I enjoyed this movie thoroughly. I highly recommend others see it as well, either in theaters or on TV when it comes out. That’s not to say it’s flawless, though. There are some elements in “Happy Death Day” that left much to be desired.

For one, the movie is rated PG-13. While I understand the studio wanting to appeal to a wider audiences, I think that was a mistake for a horror/slasher movie. At times, the violence and nudity seem incredibly watered-down. Compared to a standard “Friday The 13th” sequel, it felt unbelievably tame.

On top of that, some of the supporting characters, namely the nice/generic love interest, Carter Davis, played by Israel Broussard, left a lot to be desired. Carter is likable and all, but he comes off as too flat. There’s never a sense that he and Tree should be together for any other reason beside the fact he’s nice. While it never feels outright forced, it lacks depth.

There’s also the somewhat tongue-in-cheek humor that the movie tries to squeeze in. It tries to be meta in that it acknowledges that elements of the story are similar to “Groundhog Day.” This effort falls somewhat flat and kind of takes away from the drama. I get why it’s there since the parallels are so obvious, but saying it out loud really undermines the mood.

Even with those shortcomings, “Happy Death Day” was still an incredibly enjoyable experience. I honestly can’t remember the last time I enjoyed seeing a horror/slasher movie in the theater. The concept, the story, and the characters involved all offered a unique appeal, one that dared to defy traditional horror formulas. For that, I give this movie two thumbs up and a special place on my list of horror movies.

 

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