Two years ago, “Happy Death Day” was built around a stunt so gimmicky but surefire — a masked-killer horror scenario that repeats over and over again, with variations, like a slasher-film version of “Groundhog Day” — that it seemed almost remarkable no one had ever tried it before. The feisty sorority-girl heroine, named Tree, woke up in a stranger’s dorm room on the morning of her birthday and then proceeded to hurtle through a series of random encounters that led, inevitably, to her death at the hands of a psycho in a baby mask. In the movie, she was killed 11 times. Each time, though, she woke up again in that same room, ready to relive the day once more and maybe, this time, make it right.
All of which raises the question: What does a thriller that is rooted in the very structure of repetition do for an encore? More of the same?
In “Happy Death Day 2U,” Tree, played once again by the gifted Jessica Rothe (who’s like a live-wire collegiate Sara Bareilles), wakes up in that same bed, with Carter (Israel Broussard), the same genial floppy-haired dude, reassuring her that it’s okay, he has folded her clothes, and is she feeling all right? But this time the day turns out differently, and not just because the movie requires an all-new set of random actions.
Tree, you see, is now trapped in a parallel dimension, a loop of reality that’s playing out simultaneously with the earlier film’s. In this alternate scenario, Carter is going out with Danielle (Rachel Matthews), the icky sorority princess from hell, and Tree’s mother — who had died years before — is very much alive. And though Tree is periodically confronted by the killer, who once again wears a dark hood and the mask of the Bayfield University mascot (a big, grinning apple-cheeked baby with a single tooth), the desire to save herself from being slaughtered is no longer the only motivation at work. She’s trying to make her life come out right, which means that she’s wondering: Does she want to live in a dimension where her mother is still alive, or one where she’s still dating Carter? Decisions like that add up to a more aggravated process.
This time, the film’s convolutions may remind you less of “Groundhog Day” than of one of the “Back to the Future” sequels — and right around the time you’re probably thinking that, one of the characters blurts out, “You know, this kind of reminds me of ‘Back to the Future 2’!” But just because the movie knows that doesn’t mean you wish it were so.
“Happy Death Day 2U” is more complicated than the first “Happy Death Day,” but in this case more complicated means less fun. The earlier film was dotted with brash satirical details and motifs (like the environmental activist who kept trying to get Tree to sign her petition), but it had a dramatic form as clean as a killer’s knife thrust. In “Happy Death Day 2U,” the director, Christopher Landon, working this time from his own screenplay (the earlier film was written by Scott Lobdell), builds the movie around one of those trippy laboratory gizmos, like the “Back to the Future” time machine, that can send out shock waves that hurtle people into different dimensions. The gizmo, in this case, was built by Ryan (Phi Vu), the platinum-blonde tech geek; it’s the contraption that caused the whole “Groundhog Day”-style disruption to happen in the first place. But the more this is all “explained,” as if it were an honest-to-God science experiment, the less we care. The word multiverse is mentioned, and what happens to Tree now sprawls in enough directions to make you have to stop, periodically, to get your bearings.
It’s all trying, in its way, to be quite clever and all very knowing/videogame/meta. But if you go back to the first two “Scream” films, which hovered over “Happy Death Day” as much as “Groundhog Day” did, they managed to bracket their own reality without sacrificing that essential slasher impulse. They were nerve-jangling thrillers that goosed you, even as they kept pulling the rug out from under your propensity to get goosed.
“Happy Death Day 2U,” by contrast, is lost enough in its own narrative helix that it forgets to be a horror thriller. The movie stays busy in a way that keeps you watching, but it doesn’t provide that low-grade buzz of satisfaction the first film did. You could, theoretically, give it points for ambition; it’s trying to be something beyond a “Groundhog Day” with campus backstabbing. But in doing so, it simply edges into the terrain of a hundred trippy sci-fi tales that have done this sort of thing much better, and we lose the material’s primal pulse. In the first film, each time Tree woke up in that dorm room, the day was set off by the tell-tale ringing of the bell-tower chimes, a motif that became a suspenseful joke. Here, the chimes, more and more, become a way of resetting a movie that has gone off course.
The actors, however, are funny and game. Jessica Rothe gives an unusually emotional performance for a horror-film heroine; you look at this actress and think, “She’s going places.” Broussard, once again, makes a charmingly self-effacing love dude, Phil Vu has wide-eyed crack timing, and even Rachel Matthews, as the bee-otch you love to hate, has a winning scene in which she impersonates a blind French girl so badly that the character’s very superficiality becomes wittily likable. “Happy Death Day 2U” has more talent on display than your average horror meat grinder. But next time out (I’m betting the box-office returns will be just good enough to lead to one more), the movie should remember to scare us.