I saw the first Happy Death Day film at the historic Prytania Theatre in Uptown New Orleans, blocks away from the film’s shooting locations around the college campuses on St. Charles Ave. As a horror franchise, this series is a little too tongue-in-cheek to take especially seriously, but there was still something eerie about that geographic proximity. The Happy Death Day films have a killer hook in how they adapt the late-90s slasher model to the Groundhog’s Day time-loop narrative structure, generating a body count horror film where the exact same body can be stabbed to death dozens of times with little consequence, as our protagonist wakes up in the same time loop every time she’s taken out by her masked killer. For New Orleanians, the familiarity of the film’s scenery only adds to that cosmic terror, but in unexpected ways that extend beyond the oak trees & streetcars in the blurred background of the college campus setting. It’s the inspiration the film pulls from our most terrifying local sports mascot for its serial killer’s design that really makes this series a nightmare. As I noted in my review of the original film, the fictional school mascot mask the killer wears bears “a striking resemblance to the (even more terrifying) King Cake Baby mascot that appears at our local NBA games,” an observation I suspect was common among local horror nerds. The Blumhouse team behind that film’s recent sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, gleefully emphasizes that comparison in a scene set at a college basketball game, where characters note in the dialogue how strange it is that a sports team would have a baby for a mascot, and how creepy the baby costume is – almost as if the film were directly trolling The Pelicans for their seasonal King Cake Baby appearances. This was likely infuriating to Jonathan Bertuccelli, the designer of the King Cake Baby (who is currently suing Blumhouse for the killer’s resemblance to his ungodly creation), but it personally just made me appreciate the series more for ditching the pretense that the connection was a coincidence.
Unfortunately, if you’re watching this series solely to see the King Cake Baby live out his rightful destiny as a horror movie villain, the first Happy Death Day is much better suited to your needs. Happy Death Day 2U allows itself much less time for slayings & cheeky repetitions of late-90s slasher tropes, which means less screentime for the terrifying infant. To be honest I’m not even sure this sequel is enough of a horror movie in general for me to recommend it in that context. It frequently strays from the serial murder half of its premise to further explore the mechanics of its time loop conceit. Whereas the first Happy Death Day’s time loop crisis appears to be a cosmic morality tale about the serial-murdered protagonist’s selfishness, Happy Death Day 2U provides concrete sci-fi explanations as to how the time loop was initiated. Instead of being chased through scary hospitals & frat house hallways for the majority of the runtime, return protagonist Jessia Rothe spends most of the film in her college’s Quantum Mechanics lab with several hopeless nerds trying to figure out how to break out of her time-loop crisis for a second time. Her recurring slayings are explained to be the result of a proton laser machine on the fritz, which has blurred the borders of alternate timelines & dimensions – a very different sentiment than the Universe temporarily changing its own rules specifically to teach one mean sorority girl a lesson. There are still baby-mask murders interspersed throughout this newfound sci-fi paradigm, but for the most part this film feels more like an 80s college campus comedy than a high-concept late-90s slasher. The resetting timelines antics feel like they belong to a previously unadapted Back to the Future sequel screenplay. The flustered college dean who attempts to shut down the supernatural shenanigans of the Quantum Mechanics lab feels as if he were airdropped into the picture from a contemporary Animal House knockoff. There’s an All That-level broad caricature of a blind French woman that’s allowed an alarming amount of screentime in the film’s climactic shift from sci-fi campus comedy to heist thriller. The jokes in Happy Death Day 2U are broad, but they’re also conceptually ambitious enough to be surprising & rewarding. Most horror sequels stay fresh by upping the brutality of their gore; this one does so by dropping the horror pretense altogether and gleefully digging around in the genre grab-bag for a new toy every few minutes – mostly to the audience’s perplexed delight.
When considered in the abstract, divorced from its context as a local curio, Happy Death Day 2U is the best kind of horror sequel: the kind that offers an entirely different flavor & mouthfeel than its predecessor instead of just funneling in more of the same. Its delayed fascination with the mechanics of the Groundhog’s Day time-loop narrative structure is a well-timed participation in a larger, still-growing zeitgeist as well. Other recent media like Russian Doll & Edge of Tomorrow have found pop culture gazing back into the temporal abyss in similarly comedic fashion; Happy Death Day 2U only outdoes them by allowing its inherent silliness to go as broad as possible, really leaning into the unnecessarily complex narrative mechanics necessary to pull this kind of story off. A mean sorority girl bully being killed over & over again on her birthday until she becomes a better person, always resetting to the same starting point, is more or less a manageable conceit. This follow-up to that relatively straightforward Groundhog’s Day-as-a-slasher launchpad is ambitiously, irreverently convoluted by comparison – expanding into the realms of doppelgangers, alternate timelines, and quantum physics to push this newly refreshed subgenre to its conceptual extreme. It even makes things doubly hard on itself by returning to the square-one reset point of the first film, so that it has to maintain the same cast & production design continuity to make any sense for those of us attempting to follow along. Hilariously, the movie also takes on this increasingly convoluted endeavor without an upfront recap of what happened in the previous film, as if everyone in the world has already seen Happy Death Day (not to mention having seen it recently enough to remember all the details of its plot). When Rothe begrudgingly does provide a “Previously on . . .” recap roughly 15 minutes into the film, she rushes through it, annoyed at the obligation. Whether or not you’re enamored with the sci-fi campus comedy deviations Happy Death Day 2U takes from its initial horror template, you have to admire its confidence that its audience is following along with every non-sequitur indulgence as if it makes perfect logical sense (and, for the most part, it does).
Speaking selfishly, what I’d most like to see from a Happy Death Day 3 is a truce between the series’ baby-faced killer and the real-life King Cake Baby mascot. Bad-blood lawsuits between Blumhouse & the King Cake Baby’s designer aside, I think it would be incredibly satisfying to see the real deal make an official cameo in a sequel to the horror franchise that “allegedly” took inspiration from his look. That crossover synergy would even help the series’ scare factor, as there’s nothing quite as terrifying as the dead eyes & bulbous baby body of the real thing. The tonal direction of Happy Death Day 2U indicates the series isn’t especially interested in being scary at this point, but it also does convey a willingness to throw anything & everything at the screen as long as it’s good for a gag. The only x-factor there is how open to reconciliation Bertuccelli is feeling to a series he believes ripped him off; the staggering settlement he’s seeking in his lawsuit (“half the movie’s profits”) isn’t a good sign, but maybe there’s a better timeline out there where he & Blumhouse manage to work it out.