Imagine Bill Murray navigating the opening scene of “Scream” every single day.
That’s what director Christopher Landon’s latest film feels like. Combining the heartfelt moments of “Groundhog Day” and brutal deaths of “Scream,” “Happy Death Day 2U” attempts to balance its predecessor’s blood-curdling homicide with poignant mother-daughter moments. The sequel makes a fine addition for those interested in the limited “Happy Death Day” universe. But die-hard horror fans will be disappointed by the glaring shortage of suspense and slasher scenes.
The film opens not with the familiar protagonist Tree (Jessica Rothe), but with Tree’s boyfriend’s roommate and comic relief character Ryan (Phi Vu), who is stuck in a time loop as he encounters a baby-faced killer over and over again. After some meddling with his school-funded time machine, the main story reverts back to Tree, but with slight variations from the plot established in the first film. Carter (Israel Broussard) is no longer Tree’s boyfriend, and someone from her past has unexpectedly returned. Tree repeatedly fends off another baby-faced killer as she debates whether she should return to her original world.
Landon spices up the recycled premise and predictable slasher scenes with questionable time-travel science. This time-traveling aspect drives the plot effectively and potentially builds the foundation for a teased third film, but is not established enough to fully encompass the film. Nearly a fifth of screen time is spent discussing algorithms and theories that fail to incorporate current scientific understanding, distracting from the otherwise compelling narrative. Rather than developing characters or creating a suspenseful narrative, Landon creates a confused mess of questionable science that bogs down the flow of the film.
Despite the suspicious time-travel science, the actors, especially Rothe, are still able to bring raw fear to the screen. Tree, though already having encountered the masked killer numerous times, continues to show panicked, fear-stricken facial and body expressions whenever the killer appears. In one scene, Tree attempts to escape from an empty hospital while remaining hunched and close to the ground, pivoting her head to keep an eye out for the killer on the loose. Even as Tree slowly gains confidence in her decisions, fear still debilitates her, creating a believable hesitance in her actions despite the repetitive scenario.
However, a quarter of the way into the film, the tone shifts – and not for the better. Suspense and tension dissipate as the plot shifts to Tree spending quality time with her family. For anyone more interested in thrills, the story feels disconnected from a franchise previously occupied with gruesome murder. Around every corner, viewers are anticipating a chase scene but are instead greeted by melodic, orchestral music and family luncheons. Such scenes become so habitual that any hope for actual horror dies away – and is replaced with anticipation for the film to end.
The out-of-place emotional story and shaky scientific foundation are the root cause of the unfocused narrative. “Happy Death Day 2U” has clearly decided to move away from the realm of horror and to establish itself as a blockbuster film centered instead on action and drama. If the teased third film in the series comes to fruition, horror fans should not expect thrills and suspense. But, for those who simply enjoy the “Happy Death Day” universe, fans can certainly anticipate more melodrama in future sequels.