Horror sequels are almost always contentious. More often than not a sequel gives audiences more of the same, but sometimes a follow-up takes a wholly different route. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), for example, veer far off course from what came before and give viewers things they’re not expecting and sometimes don’t want. Happy Death Day 2 U, the sequel to Blumhouse’s hit Groundhog Day (1993) riff, Happy Death Day (2017), has horror fans heading in expecting a brand new slasher film but walking out having seen a college-centric sci-fi comedy brimming with references to the cinematic time traveling films of the 1980s.
This has left some die-hard slasher fans miffed after falling for the first film, but director Christopher Landon has crafted a movie that builds off of small throwaway plot devices from its predecessor to build a plausible explanation for why our heroine Tree (Jessica Rothe) is reliving the same day over and over again. But more so, it smartly expands its own universe to give us something to look forward to in the (hopefully) inevitable concluding chapter of this horror/sci-fi trilogy.
But Happy Death Day 2 U also left us salivating for the films that it’s so clearly paying homage to. The following recommendations could actually deepen your appreciation of this sequel by taking you on your own nostalgia-ridden journey through time. So if you found yourself craving more youthful, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, these films are a must see.
My Science Project (1985)
Something that Happy Death Day 2 U has that I found completely unexpected was a clear reverence for the genre fun that Amblin Entertainment produced in the 1980s, with the clearest allusion being to their film Back to the Future (more on that later). But really Happy Death Day 2 U owes far more to a movie that was riffing off of that Amblin feeling itself during the 1980s: My Science Project.
After finding a piece of alien technology at a military junkyard that he tries to pass off as his past-due science project, teen mechanic and resident campus cool guy Harlan (John Stockwell) finds himself in a time warp not at all unlike the time loops that Tree and company find themselves in, allowing people, places, and things to pop in from other dimensions. And while this science project doesn’t involve quite as much “needing to die” as Happy Death Day 2 U does, it still has its fair share of monstrous moments like battling mutants, neanderthals, and a Ray Harryhausen-esque dinosaur. We even get Dennis Hopper in a supporting role as a hippy-dippy science teacher huffing nitrous like he’s doing his homework for Blue Velvet. My Science Project is the multiverse theory from Happy Death Day 2 U, but for the ’80s set.
What I found most refreshing about Happy Death Day 2 U was its surprisingly intricate take on time travel and the theory that multiple universes can exist on top of each other. But if you want to see possibly the most intelligent film ever made on time travel, that may still be difficult for laymen to comprehend even after multiple viewings, seek out Shane Carruth’s Primer.
Engineers Aaron and Dave toil away their lives at dead-end day jobs while they work on a mysterious project in their off time which, much to their surprise, is actually a machine capable of time travel. And if you thought Ryan traveling back in time to kill himself to stop Sissy from being activated was an eerie plot device, then you’ll find the dark places Primer goes to utterly chilling.
Real Genius (1985)
The same weekend that My Science Project came out, another film was released that is cut from the same cloth as Happy Death Day 2 U: the Val Kilmer vehicle Real Genius. Not only do we get peak Kilmer as genius college student Chris Knight, but we also have another science project headed up by a group of college kids that the government takes one hell of an interest in thanks to Professor Hathaway, played by resident ’80s slimeball William Atherton (Ghostbusters, Die Hard).
Hathway has been secretly conscripted by the CIA to develop a laser weapon, tasking his students at Pacific Technical University (a proxy for CalTech) with completing the project. Thanks to the help from ex-student Lazslo, played by perennial ’80s burnout Jon Gries, the students race against the clock to ensure that the government can’t use their work to create instruments of war. And while the government agents in Happy Death Day 2 U do decide to scoop up Sissy, Ryan’s (Phi Vu) quantum physics project that created the time loops, the suits have the wherewithal to admit their ignorance and bring the student masterminds on board for some much-needed pointers, setting us up for the third chapter in this trilogy of films.
Summer School (1987)
More than its predecessor, Happy Death Day 2 U is angled primarily as a school-set comedy. From running away from campus security and feuding with the crusty ol’ dean to planning elaborate heists to save the day, it has all the trappings that made this niche genre so popular in the 1980s. And while you could watch the undeniable king of raunchy college comedies, Animal House (1978), why not dip your toes into an entry that also has a strong appreciation for genre fare: Carl Reiner’s Summer School.
Just like how Tree is pulled back into the time loop thanks to the quantum mechanics of Sissy, Mark Harmon is mere moments away from going on a hot Hawaii vacation with his boo before he’s pulled back into teaching a summer session of remedial English or else he will lose his tenure as a PE coach (which, I suppose, could be a thing?). But arguably what keeps this film in our hearts, outside of peak heartthrob Harmon, is the horror movie loving duo Dave and Chainsaw with their elaborate gore-filled pranks that undoubtedly inspired a generation of troublemakers for years to come. Or at least for the 1988-1989 school year.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
The only way for Tree to help Ryan and crew pinpoint the correct algorithm and slingshot her back into her own timeline is to live, die, and repeat again and again while memorizing each individual quantum equation until they come to the last possible solution to finally set the timelines straight. And you know who else did something similar? Tom fucking Cruise.
In Doug Liman’s sci-fi epic Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise plays Major William Cage who heads up media relations for the United Defense Force as the world faces off against a race of aliens known as Mimics. Thrust into the battlefield by a General to silence him, Cruise becomes battle ready by dying and repeating the same day, again and again, memorizing every position of every alien on the battlefield, just like war hero Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) did before him. Together the duo uses their collective memories to locate the hive mind to neutralize the alien threat, all before they can reset their timelines for good. While the film isn’t as concerned with the physics behind time travel, it is still a unique take on the same plot device that Happy Death Day 2 U employs, told through the lens of the type of big-budget action only a star like Tom Cruise can help power.
Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)
Much like Happy Death Day, the original Waxwork film is much more in line with the horror genre than its time-jumping sequel. But what Anthony Hickox crafted in his follow up is an exuberant, silly, and genre-blending mashup that is tailor-made for both horror and sci-fi junkies with a taste for that early ’90s aesthetic.
Following their escape from David Warner’s voodoo cursed wax museum, Mark (Zach Galligan) and Sarah (Monika Schnarre) find themselves on the run after Sarah is accused of killing her step-father — who was actually murdered by a living severed hand from the museum, naturally. Through filmic happenstance, they discover that they can travel between time and space into other dimensions wherein they can take back evidence to exonerate Sarah of the murder. Think of it as a horror-fried take on Quantum Leap or Sliders with an incredible cameo by genre legend Bruce Campbell at the top of his game.
Final Exam (1981)
The biggest criticism I’ve read about Happy Death Day 2 U is that it’s not really a slasher film. And while that estimation should be argued, it is true that the devices of the blood-soaked sub-genre aren’t as on display as they were in the previous film. So if you were left craving a little bit more of the red stuff, then may I recommend 1981’s Final Exam, a film that’s so much a slasher that it basically does away with any semblance of a plot and just gives you what you want: stalkin’ and slashin’ college kids. Hell, you even get a scene of someone plummeting from a clock tower, just like how Tree decides to off herself in one of her many time resets!
While Final Exam may not be the greatest example of a slasher film, it does make many inspired choices, namely by not giving the killer a backstory or a name. He’s just a silent, foreboding white man with a knife which, in 2019, may make him one of the more realistic killers the sub-genre has ever offered.
A lightning fast shot of adrenaline, Detention is a feverish slasher film that, like Happy Death Day 2 U also takes a sharp left turn in the into sci-fi territory by way of a time-traveling bear statue.
Written and directed by Joseph Kahn (Bodied), the core story of the film is about a slasher copying the kills from a popular series of films called Cinderhella and preying on a group of teens stuck in detention. But what we’re here for is how they interweave a surprising story of science projects, blood-letting, time travel, and a dastardly plot drenched in toxic misogyny that can only emerge from horny hormones for a frenetic genre mash-up. While Detention may not be to everyone’s taste, it has a little dash of everything that any viewer is bound to walk away with something to hold on to.
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
If Back to the Future was a touchstone for Christopher Landon while making the original Happy Death Day, then Back To The Future Part II is the natural progression of this homage. It’s the most obviously referenced film within the film, both appearing as a poster in Carter’s (Israel Broussard) dorm room and as a conversation when Tree admits to having never seen the film series (mimicking the closing scene of the original film wherein she admits she’s never seen Groundhog Day).
But more so it’s the twisting time travel plot with our protagonist facing what life would have been like if major events that defined them hadn’t happened, like Tree’s mother dying or Marty’s father marrying his mother. And while Tree’s alternate timeline may not feature pump-up sneakers, rehydratable pizza, or sports almanacs, both films use time travel as a way for their characters to reflect not only on who they are, but what they hold important in their lives.