It’s always a nice surprise when a horror-thriller like “Happy Death Day 2U” comes along and cleverly upends the low expectations one would normally have for a low-budget slasher — and a sequel, to boot.
If you remember the first “Happy Death Day” — and seeing the first one is a must to make any sense out of this one — you’ll recall that it put sorority sister Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) in a lethal “Groundhog Day” situation. She wakes up one Monday, hung over, in the dorm room of a stranger, nice-guy Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), and goes through the day leading up to a surprise birthday party, which she never gets to because a killer in a baby-face Halloween mask kills her first. Then she wakes up again in Carter’s dorm room and the cycle repeats itself until she can figure out who’s killing her over and over again.
The sequel begins exactly where the first movie left off, on Tuesday, but seen through Carter’s nerdy roommate Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), as he goes through a normal day that ends with his violent murder — and he goes through it all again. Since one of the first people he tells this to is Tree, she’s immediately accepting of his otherwise outlandish story, and jumps in to help him solve his problem.
The source of Ryan’s time loop — and, it turns out, Tree’s — is the project Ryan and his science partners, Samar and Dre (Suraj Sharma and Sarah Yarkin), are building in the quantum mechanics lab. When they fire it up, over the objections of Dean Bronson (Steve Zissis), it lets loose a cosmic blast that sends Tree to the last place she wants to go: Monday again.
Sure enough, she wakes up in Carter’s dorm room, seemingly reliving the day from hell in which she was repeatedly murdered in the first movie. But she quickly notices some changes — like how her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) is different, and the sorority’s queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews) is, like, nice. Ryan explains that this loop is in a different dimension, and they have to use the quantum reactor lab project to fix things to end the loop.
Along the way, it would be nice if Tree could also prevent people from getting gruesomely murdered by the baby-mask killer. There’s also another difference in this dimension that makes Tree seriously consider whether she’d rather stay instead of going back to her old life.
Writer-director Christopher Landon, woh directed the first “Happy Death Day” and a few of the “Paranormal Activity” sequels, references early on the inspiration for this sequel: “Back to the Future Part II.” It’s a fair comparison, because Landon takes the structure of the first “Happy Death Day” and tweaks it in some creative ways to bring a fresh perspective — and a new mystery — to the familiar scenario of the first movie.
As with the first movie, “Happy Death Day 2U” is held together — even in its more slapstick moments — by Rothe. Her comic skills and scream-queen charm keep us invested as Tree must once again endure the live-die-repeat cycle to get to a satisfying conclusion.
‘Happy Death Day 2U’
Opens Wednesday, February 13, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for for violence, language, sexual material and thematic elements. Running time: 100 minutes.