“If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift”
— “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell & 400 Unit
It’s always fascinating to see if a new film stirs up a reaction of offense and defense on social media. Since Happy Death Day 2U came out on Valentine’s Day, I’ve noticed one consistent response: horror fans offended by the supposedly false promotion of the film, a sequel to sleeper hit Happy Death Day, as a return to form.
They have one thing right: it’s not a return to form. Not completely. I can also guess these same people would have been the first to take to social media to pan it as an unoriginal retread of the first film if it hadn’t gone in a different direction. I only wish social media had been around when Aliens came out so that we could have seen the ridiculousness of responses over its departures in theme, style, and genre trappings from Alien.
If Happy Death Day 2U had not misled audiences with its promotional material, I have a feeling people would have been less likely to go see it. Promotion, at its best, is seeking to grab an audience with an appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to get sales. If they had promoted 2U as a science fiction thriller, people would have been less prone to go see something brilliant because it didn’t fit within their comfortable compartments of what a sequel is supposed to look like.
Rest assured, this film is a trip. I went in knowing that it wasn’t going to be a retread, but having no idea what I was going to witness. Christopher Landon is confident in his vision, which was clear from the first film’s very self-aware ripoff of the Groundhog Day formula while still maintaining its own style and narrative originality. This film, if one looks at it from a detached perspective, is a risk. Changing the formula always is risk. Thankfully, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Studio is about risks and smaller budgets. Limiting the budget allows studios to more easily make their money back while retaining the filmmaker’s vision. More money in a film doesn’t necessitate a hit; Hollywood is strewn with the bodies of blockbusters that didn’t connect with an audience.
The most impressive aspect of the film, however, is its heart. We are brought into a space that we’ve all considered at one time or another in our lives: if we had made different decisions in the past, where would we be now? As the film toys with multiverses, science and physics, Tree—our main protagonist—is given the opportunity to live in a world where her mother is still alive. Yet the cost she must pay for choosing this world is significant. One of the most touching moments I’ve experienced takes place between Tree and her mother as they discuss the merits of choosing to live in the past or choosing to live in the future. The emotion of the scene and Tree’s choice was palpable to me, to the point of even shedding a tear. This is the last thing I expected from a sequel to a slasher variant of Groundhog Day.
Like the line from the Jason Isbell song above, love is such that it requires our whole being in order for it to have substance. As Tree struggles with the history between her and her mother in this alternate universe where she did not live, she realizes that for relationships to mean something, they have to be built on shared memory. With each new shared experience that Tree has no recollection of with her mother, she realizes more that part of the weight of love requires loss. If we didn’t die, we wouldn’t feel the immediacy of loving a person. And it’s that loss that brings us to become the people we are.
Whether the genre-shift works for the viewer or not, the one thing that must be recognized is how Landon was smart to keep the emotional and joyful core of the first film intact. I will take emotional maturity over narrative tenacity in film any day; and somehow a film entitled Happy Death Day 2U delivered heart to us in spades.