Movie Review: “Happy Death Day / Happy Death Day 2U”

   The slasher genre has been recent years, a fact even more true in 2017 (prior to the revivals of series’ like Halloween and Child’s Play), which is a shame. I won’t argue the slasher genre has always brought dramatic depth or suspense, nor can I say it has always been the most polished or thoroughly crafted, although outliers certainly do exist. What I can say though is, an above-average (not top of the line, but above the heap) slasher film often offers a fun, satiable experience for moviegoers and horror-fans alike. 

   As premised, Happy Death Day is an American black comedy slasher film directed by Chistopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) and written by Scott Lobdell. The film was released to mixed-to-positive reviews and was successful at the box-office with the Blumhouse production grossing over 125 million from a production budget of less than 5 million. The film follows a young woman named Tree Gelbman who is murdered on her birthday. All’s well and good (or, well, as good as being murdered can be), until she awakens to find herself “unmurdered”. Not only that, but it’s the same day! That’s right, it’s a downright Groundhogs’ day scenario, as Tree finds herself reliving the same day over and over again, and she sets out to find her killer and prevent her own death.

   I didn’t have a lot of expectations for Happy Death Day as a film. The “Groundhogs” formula has been implemented in a number genres to solid results, like Edge of Tomorrow, for instance. It has been pursued as well with the Abigail Breslin horror Haunter, which I had a fine reception toward from what I remembered (it has been a while). Nevertheless, it’s a fun concept. If nothing else, it breathes life into a genre that has been in admitted need of a face-lift.

   The acting of Jessica Rothe and company plant this firmly more in the comedy-horror territory than a straightforward approach. This applies well with what I said about the slasher genre’s “fun” appeal, although, I will say it accomplishes said feat through a different means. Referring to Happy Death Day as a “Mean Girls” with genre elements blended into it. It’s an interesting mishmash which sees our snooty protagonist look down her nose at others and align herself with a suitable clique, only to become more self-aware and considerate of others.

   The horror elements can be seen on some level. It’s a PG-13 film and therefore, it was limited on exactly what it could get away with. Our murder dons a masked crafted by Tony Gardner, other-wise known for creating the Scream series’ classic Ghost-face mask. The mask is par for the course, albeit standard for the genre and perhaps a little on the safe side with others like it. I feel as though the same can be said about the horror altogether in this film. The high-concept allows commentary and riffs on the horror genre, but, at the sum of its parts, the horror is basic and unmemorable. Happy Death Day relies heavily on the gimmick and often is dependent on its charm more than what it can substantiate beyond that.

   As the credits rolled for Happy Death Day, I met it with shrugged shoulders and contentment. The humor is hit-and-miss, although, it might land more often with its target-demographic. The story is simple and goofy, with a layer of cheese an inch thick, but it has an amusing playfulness that makes its faults easy to overlook. I wouldn’t call it a “gem” of the genre, so-to-speak, but among the more palatable of the genre’s modest efforts.

   Happy Death Day 2U was released two years after the original film, this time directed and written by Christopher Landon, meanwhile, Jessica Rothe reprises her role as the series’ lead-protagonist. Likewise, this film was released to mixed-to-positive reviews from critics and was a solid mid-level hit for Blumhouse. Unfortunately, the sequel saw the budget nearly doubled (which sounds drastic, but is only increasing from 4.8 million to 9 million, not counting marketing, etc.) and the box-office return was nearly cut in-half with just shy of 65 million. Similar to Sinister 2, which had healthy returns as well, Jason Blum has swatted down expectations for a sequel. It’s logical and almost, even, respectable in some respects. Blumhouse has had breakthroughs like Get Out, Split, and the Paranormal Activity, and instead of milking a series (like they did with Paranormal Activity), they’re closing the book on it and cutting their losses in favor of new series’.

   Unlike certain other slashers sequels of yesteryear that might try to recreate a similar scenario for a new cast, not only does Happy Death Day 2U sees the return of its main-cast, but it ties closely into its predecessor. In this film, Tree finds herself in another dimension, forced to relive a different version of the same day she lived in the last film. This new reality is found to have a number of intricacies and unique qualities unlike the one she knew, including that her mother, dead in the other dimension, is alive. Tree decides, because of this, that she’d like to stay in this dimension, even though it spells the end of her and her boyfriend’s relationship established in the last film. The film follows her as she tries to unravel the spider’s web of dimensional travel and further builds on the concept, including answers to why it’s happening at all.

   I criticized the last film for its generic antagonist and the mishmash (aha!) of genre tropes. Happy Death Day felt like a man of many hats, but a master of none, so-to-speak. If Happy Death Day 2U does any one thing in-particular better than the original, it decides to lean further in one direction. If you’re a horror fan like myself, however, you’ll be disappointed to find that Happy Death Day 2U’s direction is not on the slasher elements. In-fact, they feel like a burden and inconvenience more than the selling point they were prior. Happy Death Day 2U focuses almost solely on comedy and romantic-drama. It isn’t a horror film, so much as a science-fiction film with strands of the horror genre influencing it.

   Given the subject-matter involved, this likely works to its benefit. The film retreads a lot of old-ground, but positions itself in a way that plays to its strength. Instead of focusing on what didn’t work, it doubles down on the charm of its protagonist and the novelty of its concept, leaving little room for anything else. The novelty isn’t as fresh as it was, but the humor lands a little better. It’s derivative of the original, but it trims the fat, as well.

   In some ways, it almost makes me want Happy Deathday Tre3 (a name alone that warrants existence), so I can see whether or not they’ll do a hat trick mimicking the same day as a Trilogy. However, another part of me sees Happy Death Day 2U for what it is, the sequel to a film that succeeds not because it ultimately has anything new to say, but by the skin of its teeth and by its charm and enthusiasm. The sequel’s quality in-comparison to its predecessor is differentiable by mere decimal points, but, it could easily be argued it’s also a near facsimile, relying on the same gimmick and delivering all the same innovation, or lack thereof. Personally, I believe Happy Death Day 2U succeeds admirably at matching the predecessor, hurt only because it does little to distinguish itself and thereby suffers from most of the same faults. It lucked out and mostly stuck the landing, but now, for everyone involved, I hope it will bring a new day and new ideas.

Rating: – 2.5 out of 5.0 (for both)