I’d heard a lot of good things about Happy Death Day back in 2017, but it wasn’t until now that its sequel has been released that I got around to watching them both. Incidentally: if you want to watch these movies, I highly recommend watching them back to back. Almost everything good about the sequel comes from the various ways it builds on, expands, twists, or subverts something from the first.
My first reaction to Happy Death Day was that it’s in the spirit of the Scream movies, but not as clever and not nearly as scary. It’s fairly smart and often pretty funny, and it felt simultaneously contemporary and retro. It was kind of like a lower-body-count throwback to a time before slasher movies spent a couple decades trying to out-murder each other.
But after seeing the direction Happy Death Day 2U takes the story, I feel like it’s actually the opposite of the Scream series in overall philosophy. While Scream was all about being a Gen-X self-conscious deconstruction of the horror genre, Happy Death Day seems like a millennial assertion that genres are more or less irrelevant.
Most slasher movies and monster movies treat their characters are disposable, giving them just enough motivation to set-up the next murder and making the hero just interesting enough to be able to hold an audience’s interest through to the end. But Happy Death Day loved its main character — and with good reason, since Jessica Rothe is charismatic as hell and by far the best aspect of the movie — and treated all of the “horror” as just a mechanism to show how her character develops.
And I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the second movie is even less interested in the horror movie format, leaning heavily into sci-fi for a while before making it clear that it really doesn’t care about genre at all. It really just wants to spend more time with its characters and their story.
This results in some neat things that I’ve never seen before, such as a slasher movie with a pretty strong and emotional scene in which a victim gets to make peace with her killer. Or a story about time loops in which the audience is rewarded for noticing the changes. And some seemingly insignificant moments from the first movie — like the rolling blackouts — are made such a key part of the sequel that you have to wonder whether the whole thing was planned out from the start.
But straddling several different genres means that it isn’t particularly great at any of them. There are several emotional moments that just don’t feel earned, comedy moments that fall flat, dramatic twists and reveals the audience can easily predict, and suspense scenes that aren’t particularly suspenseful. Each movie has at least one gag that works really well (in the first, it’s Danielle answering “I missed breakfast” with “We all miss breakfast.” In the second, it’s Tree pulling a gun on a cop while he’s using the bathroom). But there are some so clumsy and forced that they threaten to ruin everything, especially when surrounded by scenes that are supposed to be emotional or suspenseful.
It also often feels extremely derivative. When Happy Death Day finally acknowledges Groundhog Day, it’s at the very end of the movie, and Tree claims never to have heard of it or of Bill Murray. Which seems highly suspect, even for a college student in 2017. (The idea that she’d never heard of or seen Back to the Future in the sequel is also ridiculous). I’m assuming it’s the filmmakers telling the audience they’re aware that their entire premise is just “what if Groundhog Day were a slasher movie?” while also justifying it as its own new thing. But it really just draws attention to the fact that much of Groundhog Day was at least as horrific as anything in Happy Death Day, although it was played as a romantic comedy.
Ultimately, I’d consider Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U to succeed more than they fail, and I believe it’s because there’s an earnest rejection of cynicism at the heart of both of them. They’re not that concerned with being self-aware deconstructions or re-examinations of existing genres because they’re not that concerned with genre. It’s not even a reboot or re-imagining or homage to Groundhog Day, because it doesn’t comment on or build on anything in that movie; it just uses all the same parts to tell a different story. The result is that it has genuine affection for its characters and a few really clever moments, but at the cost of several corny or derivative scenes.
As horror/suspense/comedy/sci-fi genre hybrids, they don’t really excel at any of those genres, but they also feel undeniably free of the constraints of those genres. They only feel obliged to tell fun and interesting stories, and for the most part (and thanks to some brilliant casting), they work.