Repetition was an inbuilt feature of 2017's Happy Death Day, the (mildly) gory Groundhog Day riff in which college student Tree (Jessica Rothe) tried to find a way out of the timeloop that saw her repeatedly knifed to death by a killer wearing a babyface mask. Repeat exposure, with this week's Happy Death Day 2U, reveals this as a franchise keen to be pretty much anything other than the slasher fare it first presented as. The original was part-Mean Girls comedy - the cattiness of its inspiration pushed a little further into stabbiness - and part-parable of self-improvement, with the rhythms and punchline of a well-told joke: it was an enjoyable ride, but unlikely to trouble the sleepover crowd beyond its 93 minutes. With this month's Netflix sensation Russian Doll muscling into similar territory, the sequel takes on inflections of science fiction, finding its way back into Tree's predicament via Ryan (Phi Vu), the seemingly dimbulb Asian bro who dubbed our heroine "fine vagine" last time round; here, he's revealed to be the mastermind behind some particle accelerator doohickey that was responsible for the blackouts, and perhaps the events, of the first movie. HDD2U picks up where that film ended, then cycles backwards, replaying scenes and stretches of dialogue from new angles; it occasions the kind of plot that may only make complete sense with a very large pinboard and lots and lots of string, but which gets tidied away on screen with the assistance of a cafeteria napkin.
The pleasures of this series reside in that ability to flex and pivot casually between realities, genres and reference points. Tree's curly-haired beau Carter (Israel Broussard) cites Back to the Future Part II as precedent at an early juncture, though HDD2U more closely resembles a Looney Tunes version of Inception (also namechecked), breezing blithely through those elements of theoretical plotting Christopher Nolan built into a grandiose vision, and simply shrugging and starting from scratch whenever one or other of its characters meets their maker. A second trip on this merry-go-round confirms Rothe as one of the more committed and capable heroines in recent teen horror: she makes very funny Tree's incandescent rage at having to revisit events she'd thought were behind her. (She's like a critic learning that a sequel has been made to their least favourite movie.) And while the character's relationship with a mother absent from the first movie has the air of a calculated demographic sop - part one presumably played well among daughters - it's played with a sincerity that makes it possibly the franchise's most surprising aspect to date.
There is, alas, a marked tail-off in energy and invention in the second half. Happy Death Day set out its logic, then stuck rigidly to it; it was mechanically efficient, a device to make the suggestible viewer jump in their seat and then giggle for having been such a silly sausage. HDD2U, by contrast, begins to shake and sputter around the hour mark: you catch it flapping around the margins of its own set-up, in a desperate attempt to keep an insanely complicated plot moving. A sequence of painfully unfunny slapstick recasting the sorority's queen bee-yotch Danielle (Rachel Matthews) as a Frenchwoman called Amélie Le Pew is followed by a limp wrap-up, and a sting for a third movie that suggests the valuable life lessons gained in the original are about to be thrown out in the name of franchise expansion. (The director, Paranormal Activity 5's Christopher Landon, has taken over scripting duties from the original's Scott Lobdell; it's by no means an improvement.) Perhaps the kids the series is aimed at will themselves shrug off this sudden dip in quality control, but just because a film's knowingly aiming for déjà vu, it doesn't mean you won't feel as if you've already paid for it, and what horror there is here still seems very mild, designed to cause a weekend spike in popcorn sales rather than anything in the way of lasting night terrors.
Happy Death Day 2U is now playing in cinemas nationwide.