The original Happy Death Day in 2017 was a fresh twist on the slasher movie, a kind of cross between Happy Birthday to Me and Groundhog Day in which a troubled college student named Tree (Jessica Rothe) finds herself reliving her birthday over and over again, each time ending with her death at the hands of a masked killer. It’s only through her own realizations about her behavior and the way she evolves into a better person that Tree can solve the mystery and (literally) get her life back on track.
The comedic horror thriller was such a surprise success that Blumhouse Productions, the company behind this and many other genre hits, immediately fast-tracked a sequel called Happy Death Day 2U. Directed again by Christopher Landon (who also wrote the script) and featuring the return of Rothe and fellow cast members Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Phi Vu and others, Happy Death Day 2U takes the previously unexplained time loop of the first film and puts a sci-fi spin on it that involves parallel universes and more ethical and personal choices for Tree to unsnarl.
“When we made the first movie, I don’t think anyone had the intention of making a sequel. It felt very closed,” says Landon in our interviews with him, Rothe, Broussard, and Blumhouse head Jason Blum. “But this idea sparked and it took hold and it felt like a really fun, unusual and unexpected direction to take things in. I was especially excited about being able to explore a kind of sci-fi, throwback, Weird Science kind of vibe.”
“It’s so crazy and wacky, but fun and grounded in all the things that made the first film so successful,” says Rothe. “Even as wild as everything gets, at the end of the day Chris was such a huge advocate of always coming back to, ‘Who are these people and what do they want and what do they need?’ Keeping the characters grounded in that way and not letting them spin off into archetypes of who they could be, is one of the reasons I think people connect so much to the film.”
Both films’ careful attention to character, as well as winning performances from the outstanding Rothe and the rest of the cast, are key to elevating this franchise above your run-of-the-mill stalk-and-slash narratives.
“If you don’t have people that you care about, then you’re just not going to engage, you’re not going to be drawn in,” agrees Landon. “You can be as scary as you want to be, but you need to care first. And Jessica is such a talented actor, and so versatile, so I think part of what makes this particular movie so unique is her performance. It’s the fact that she can wear so many different hats, and wear them all together at the same time and make it look effortless.”
The other thing that makes Happy Death Day 2U unique in its own right is that it doesn’t take the easy way out and simply rehash the events of the first movie — which could be especially simple to do in a story based around a time warp. Instead, the new film takes the story into an entirely different genre, while giving the characters a chance to grow even more from where we last left them.
“What I love about the movie and the franchise, and what Chris has done, and I’ve never seen before, is having a franchise — and hopefully we’ll get to make a third movie — where each movie is a slightly different genre,” says Blum. “So the first movie and the second movie are different genres within the same franchise. Maybe we’ll get to make a third movie and that will be a third genre, but I think that’s unusual and it was what really made me want to make the second movie really badly.”
Happy Death Day 2U is out in theaters this Friday (February 15).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye