The original working title for Freaky, Christopher Landon’s highly-anticipated follow-up to his fan favorite Happy Death Day movies, was Freaky Friday the 13th. Because of rights issues, they obviously couldn’t proceed with calling it that, but weirdly enough it’s actually better this way. With the legacies of both Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th weighing heavily on its shoulders, there’s a chance Landon’s latest might have faltered under the pressure. As it stands, the film has the space to be its own wacky, unique, messed up little hybrid.
Kicking off with a genuinely great prologue, during which a group of obnoxious and super-horny teens are laid to waste in the kind of colossal manse nobody lives in outside of movies like this, Freaky establishes its slasher bona-fides early on. The kills are vicious, inventive, and look to be mostly practical. As fun as the Happy Death Day flicks are, they’re stymied by the PG-13 certificate (which is necessary to reach the target audience, but I digress). Gifted a hard R, Landon and co-writer Michael Kennedy have the freedom to go nuts.
Related: Happy Death Day 2U [Review]
After establishing the backstory of the not-so-mythical Blissfield Butcher (played by a glowering Vince Vaughn), the focus switches to sweet, shy high-schooler Millie (Blockers star Kathryn Newton), who dresses kind of like Sissy Spacek’s Carrie if she lived in 2020. Her father died a while back, leaving Millie and older sister/cop Charlene (Dana Drori) to look after their depressed, Pinot-swigging mother. At school, Millie is routinely picked on in the kind of throwaway manner most of us will recognize, particularly by the tiny but evil Ryler, gamely portrayed by Melissa Collazo (side note: is Ryler a real name? My DMs are open).
Thankfully, she has a couple good friends in the form of Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich) who, as 2020 standards must dictate, are Black and gay respectively. Thankfully, as those who have seen the lively trailer for Freaky will already know, their token-ness is played for laughs, most notably when, while running for their lives, Josh points out that they’re both dead meat purely because of who they are. Later, a cop will mindlessly describe them as African-American and “excited,” which is a much funnier joke if only because we haven’t heard it before.
One night, while waiting for her unreliable mother yet again, Millie has a run-in with the Butcher and he stabs her. Unfortunately, the weapon he killer utilizes is an ancient Aztec dagger with mysteriously mystical powers. When the clock strikes midnight, Millie and her murderer switch bodies, with him waking up in her prissy suburban home next to a strategically placed Panic! At The Disco poster and her rousing in an abandoned building filled with hanging, rotting animal carcasses. It’s quite the shock to the system for both parties, albeit in very different ways.
Once Freaky has established its loose, zany tone, Landon has plenty of fun playing with, and frequently subverting, the typical tropes of a body swap comedy. The Butcher feels himself up, Millie insists she’s not a killer to horrified strangers, and so on. To his great credit, unlike something like Freaky Friday, in which Jamie Lee Curtis’s voice could be heard in Lindsay Lohan’s head and vice versa, there’s no inner monologue to clue us in on what’s happened. It’s all about the performances, whether it’s Millie creepily eyeing up a kitchen knife or The Butcher fleeing across a field, arms flailing.
The physicality of Vaughn and Newton’s performances is hugely impressive. She has the tougher job, of course, since The Butcher doesn’t typically speak that much, but by hunching her body over ever so slightly and narrowing her eyes, Newton communicates untold amounts of menace. In fact, when Vaughn appears as The Butcher, he isn’t nearly as scary. The comedic actor fares far better as Millie, all wide eyes and mile-a-minute chatter. Peeing standing up and being tall are just a couple things Millie finds herself confused by, at first, and Vaughn plays both to perfection.
His performance owes a lot to Jack Black in the recent Jumanji sequels, in which he plays a teen girl trapped in the body of, well, Jack Black. Vaughn exudes a similar energy here, but he doesn’t overplay it particularly when proving who Millie really is to her disbelieving friends through the medium of dance. A romantic backseat moment with Millie’s crush could have been uncomfortable but Vaughn is so enveloped in the role that it plays as oddly sweet. In body-swap comedies, one actor usually outdoes the other by becoming the character rather than echoing the other’s performance, but Vaughn and Newton are equally matched.
As with the Happy Death Day movies, the world of Freaky is lightly sketched to ensure the focus is entirely on the bizarre premise, which means not a second is wasted even as entertaining side characters flit in and out of view. Although the body count is relatively low, the murders committed by The Butcher while in Millie’s body are gruesome, with a bullying teacher meeting a particularly sticky end. The visuals are strong across the board, from the styling to the gore, and the laughs come thick and fast. The film isn’t particularly scary but there are moments of what the MPAA would deem “sustained terror.”
There’s a sense that The Butcher’s story could be expanded upon in future installments, if indeed there’s scope for the Freaky franchise to continue (Landon previously teased a crossover with Happy Death Day, which would surely go down a treat). Really, though, this isn’t his story, it’s Millie’s. As wild as it might sound considering this is a body-swap slasher movie, Freaky is about one young woman’s journey to finding self confidence even if, in order to do so, she must live inside the body of a mass murderer for a while. On paper, it sounds completely insane, but Landon and Kennedy have such a tight grasp on the concept, and such a deep love for it, and the dueling lead performances are so strong, that it totally works.
Thankfully, aside from the aforementioned tit grab (also a joke in Jumanji: The Next Level), the idea of a middle-aged man being in a teenage girl’s body isn’t exploited. Although the Butcher changes up Millie’s look, he chooses a tough leather jacket, jeans and boots – in other words, the kind of outfit a cool dude his age might wear – rather than anything revealing or overtly sexual. There’s never a moment when it feels like Freaky might tip over into either queasy sexual politics or agenda pushing. Millie is assuredly the hero and Landon doesn’t degrade her. If anything, this is a movie for teen girls in the way only a movie that isn’t trying to condescend to them could be.
This year has been such a garbage fire that movies like Freaky seem even more important in spite, or maybe even because, of their essential fluffiness. Who would’ve thought, back in 2019, before we knew what was ahead of us, that a story about a teenage girl swapping bodies with a vengeful serial killer would be so life-affirming, and so empowering? Horror continues to thrive, even without theaters, because it continues to be an underground, punk rock genre at its core, and it’s comforting to know that something like Freaky plays just as well at home as with a giant crowd on a Friday night. Hopefully, we’ll all get the chance to watch movies like that again some day but, for the year that’s in it, Landon’s latest more than fills the gap.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Christopher Landon
Writer(s): Christopher Landon, Michael Kennedy
Stars: Kathryn Newton, Vince Vaughn, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich
Release date: November 13, 2020 (theaters), December 4, 2020 (internet)
Studio/Production Company: Blumhouse
Run Time: 102 minutes