Warning: Spoilers for Happy Death Day 2U ahead.
As a lifelong horror fan who has watched way too many Final Destination films, I don't often find myself giddily gushing over the sequel to a slasher movie. Happy Death Day 2U changed the game — not just because it's a perfectly blended genre smoothie that transcends the delightful original's roots, but because it manages to be both unbelievably fun and deeply moving without ever venturing into saccharine territory.
Which is to say — I really liked this movie. A lot. Most of those reasons involve protagonist Tree, played by Jessica Rothe. In the first film, Tree (real name Theresa; this isn't a Goop situation) is a sorority girl with a permanent scowl on her face — the exact kind of person who, according to my interview with Rothe during the sequel’s press junket "would have died in the first 20 minutes" had Happy Death Day been a different, more predictable movie.
Well, technically, Tree does die — many times over, at the hands of a baby doll mask-wearing serial killer. She just pops up, in the same bed, day in and day out, inadvertently resetting her life until she can find the person responsible for her death.
"Tree’s character was never supposed to be the hero," Rothe says. "She’s an antihero at the beginning, and that’s one of the remarkable things — it allowed me to go on this huge character journey. Arcs like that just aren’t written for women often, especially for genre, when you start out as this 'bitch you love to hate,' as a despicable person who has heart but is wounded and has built a lot of walls. But over the course of the film we see her blossom into this fierce warrior."
The more we get to know Tree in the first film, the more we understand her. Why does this co-ed have such a chip on her shoulder? It turns out that her mother died, and she never quite got over it.
"Jessica is a very gifted actress because she somehow makes a character who is not that likeable, deeply sympathetic," says now-legendary horror producer Jason Blum via phone interview. "That’s very, very hard to do. The sequel would not exist had she not wanted to do it."
By the end of the original film, Tree — having died 11 times — is a changed woman. Tree ends her Groundhog Day situation in the first film when she solves her own murder, kills the villain, and hooks up with Carter (To All The Boys I've Loved Before's Israel Broussard), the wholesome dude she had previously overlooked.
Broussard, who also spoke with Refinery29 at the junket, says that scream queen Tree was one of the more "refreshing" parts of the script.
"It’s nice that there’s a movie where the woman isn’t running towards the killer out of stupidity," the actor says. "Tree is running towards the killer because she’s taking the power in her own hands."
Happy Death Day 2U picks up with Tree happy, out of the time loop. Then, due to a quantum physics error made by Ryan (Phi Vu), Carter's roommate, she's thrown into another dimension, where things are just a little left of center. Her mother is alive, but Carter is in love with Danielle (Rachel Matthews), Tree's sorority sister and frenemy. The question at the center of the film ultimately becomes whether she should she stay in this dimension, or return to her own reality. Ultimately, Tree gets a new, equally valid emotional arc to undergo.
"In my mind, Tree [doesn’t have to choose] between her mom and Carter; she [has to choose] between living in the past, living in a version of her life that is almost magical realism." says Rothe during our interview. "Who she is as a person, the reason she is the way she is — that she’s loud and funny and broken and smart and fierce — is partly because she lost her mom.”
If the first film was Groundhog Day meets Scream, the sequel is more Back to the Future crossed with some Final Destination fun. (There's a particularly hilarious, gruesome scene in which Tree has to throw herself in a woodchipper, like an actual tree. Get it?!?)
"One of the things that made me eager to make the sequel, in addition to getting [director] Christopher Landon and Jessica Rothe back, was this idea that we could try different genres in one franchise," says Blum, adding that Groundhog Day and Back to the Future: Part II were big inspirations. "If we make a third one, we’re going to try another ‘feeling’ of movie."
The campier, gorier elements come with the territory of Tree’s imperative to die, over and over again, in order to find a way out of the time loop — for reasons that, truthfully, are too complicated to explain here. Yes, there is still a serial killer running around, but there's so much more happening that you may forget that.
That includes an epic love story, perfectly timely for Valentine's Day. Thanks to that quantum physics mishap, Carter and Tree — seemingly destined to be together in the original dimension — are ships in the night. But you're rooting for them, hardcore, whether it's in this dimension or the next.
"I wouldn’t say it’s just a romantic comedy, but it definitely has elements of that, especially with the love triangle," says Broussard of Carter and Tree's romance.
True rom-com or not, Rothe thinks it should be your movie pick this holiday.
"It’s a perfect Valentine’s Day movie,” she says. “What better way to get closer to your date than being afraid and grabbing their hand?! Or burying your face in their shoulder! Or becoming so scared you need them to walk you home and kiss you on your doorstep! Everyone should definitely go see horror movies on Valentine’s Day!"
Happy Death Day 2U hits theaters February 13, 2019.