Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘Happy Death Day 2U’ Slashes Through Genre Conventions

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I have a soft spot for stories involving parallel universe and alternate dimensions. I adore seeing funhouse mirror versions of familiar characters. Everything from characters dressed all in black with drastic hairstyle changes to a distinguishing scar across the left cheek. Happy Death Day 2U doesn’t do any of that but that’s not a knock, more an observation. What the movie does instead is no less enjoyable, and at times, shockingly moving.

Happy Death Day 2U is a smart and funny movie without ever trying to prove it. Christopher Landon has faith in his actors, his script, and his abilities. In other words, he and the movie have faith in us, the audience.

On paper, a sequel to the first Happy Death Day is preposterous. The first movie was a horror version of Groundhog Day where a young woman, Tree (Jessica Rothe), finds herself trapped in the same day over and over. Except, in this case, the day she’s trapped in, her birthday, just so happens to be the day she is murdered by a masked psycho. It was self-contained, smart, and entertaining.

Sequels tend to have a bug up their butt to want to explain things. Why Tree was trapped in the same day over and over wasn’t the point. Much like Groundhog Day, the reason is the plot device, not the purpose.

The point of the first Happy Death Day was Tree coming to terms with the death of her mother and realizing what an awful person she had become. She also ended the movie with a boyfriend, Carter (Israel Broussard), so bonus. But she also discovered her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) was in cahoots with a serial killer, John Tombs (Rob Mello).

But thankfully, Happy Death Day 2U treats the explanation with a sort of hardy glibness it deserves. Apparently, Ryan (Phi Vu) and his friends have been fiddling about with quantum particles and whatnot; as you do. Which also explains the power outages from the last film. With just a few scenes, Landon has simultaneously explained the last movie and set up the current one.

Landon, who wrote the last movie as well, has a wonderful eye for structure. He explains while also showcasing characters, so it never feels like an info dump. Happy Death Day 2U is one of those movies where we see multiple scenes multiple times, with little variances each time. Yet, Landon imbues the story with an urgency. Once Tree begins to relieve the same day over and over, again, the same consequences show up. Even in a Hollywood movie, dying over and over takes a toll on your body. If she dies too much then she will stay dead. A plot device I wish more comic book movies would take note of.

Except the day Tree finds herself trapped in isn’t the same day because it’s not the same universe. Yes, it’s her birthday. But Carter is not her boyfriend and Lori isn’t a psychotic murderer. More than that, her Mom is still alive. It’s the last points that make Happy Death Day 2U so fascinating.

Tree must make the choice between going back to her time or stay in this alternate world. It doesn’t help that Tree begins to realize how much she loves Carter and how nice Lori could be. The mystery of who might be in cahoots with the killer, if Lori isn’t, is never really all that interesting.

Rothe is an actress so talented that we spend most of the movie wondering why we don’t see her in more movies. Much like Melissa McCarthy, she is unafraid to revel in her fury as well as some grade A slapstick. She is the engine that keeps Happy Death Day 2U chugging forward, and it’s criminal she isn’t in more things.

Forced to kill herself over and over while the scientists try and suss out how to close the time loop, she is nothing if not inventive. Spotting Carter making out with his girlfriend, Danielle (Rachel Matthews), she also spies an ad for skydiving. Cut to a scene where people jump out of the back of a plane only to reveal Tree in a bikini and no parachute. She dives off the plane. We then cut to Carter and Danielle kissing as Tree falls past the lens in slow motion; tongue hanging out with glee as she gives us the double bird.

It’s safe to say Landon embraces the dark and macabre humorously and it’s to the movie’s benefit. But not all the humor is dark. Some of it seems right out of a Disney family movie. For reasons I won’t go into Danielle pretends to be a blind French foreign exchange student so as to distract the dean of the university. 

For all, its scientific time traveling mumbo jumbo, the best parts are the ones involving the characters. Tree’s mom, Julie (Missy Yager) is worried about her daughter as she seems to be acting odd. Lori seems troubled and Tree, to her own surprise, is worried about her. Tree’s realization that Lori might not be all bad and that as much as she loves her mom, she might love Carter more, force her to come to terms with what she wants.

Toby Oliver, the cinematographer, understands the roots of Happy Death Day 2U are essentially horror. Scenes, where Ryan or Tree are being hunted by the masked killer, are lit in ways we expect them to be lit. It is at once satire and effective.  Dimly lit rooms with blinking fluorescent lights are so ingrained into our psyche as warning signs of serial killers thanks to slasher films.

Still, the amount of times filmmakers screw up this very basic shot is innumerable so when someone does it right, it’s applause-worthy. The key is to make the room dim enough to still be able to see the character exploring the room, but not so bright as to be able to see the layout of the room. It’s what we don’t see that’s scary.

Happy Death Day 2U is gleefully bananas and mercifully well-constructed. Alita: Battle Angel is a movie where they throw everything at the wall. Landon is more careful and throws what he wants at the wall and leaving the rest on the floor. In his own way, Landon is no less audacious.

In a world where characters have seen every movie related to their predicament, Landon allows for the fact that Tree isn’t into those movies. We live in social media bubbles and it becomes hard to imagine someone who hasn’t seen or heard of the Back to the Future movies. Why would she? Nothing about Tree in either movie seems to indicate it would be a movie she would particularly care for.

If nothing else, Landon’s audacity comes from envisioning a character not baptized in pop culture. Tree is interesting on her own merits and her humor is derived not from what she has consumed, but what she feels and thinks. Out of everything I loved about Happy Death Day 2U, it’s Tree that I love the most. Odd that it’s the satire that has what amounts to a fully realized and believable character.



Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

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