Christopher Landon’s directorial breakthrough was Happy Death Day (2017), the horror-comedy that combined a slasher movie with the time-loop hijinks of Groundhog Day (1993). A less successful but equally creative sequel followed in 2019. And now he’s back with another high-concept twist on the slasher genre, which is best described as Freaky Friday the 13th.
Freaky concerns Jason Voorhees-style serial killer ‘The Blissfield Butcher’ (Vince Vaughn), who has become a legendary boogieman amongst teenagers. He resumes his killings in middle-age and takes an ornate Mayan dagger from the home of his latest wealthy victims, triggering a local panic that the notorious Butcher has returned. The next day, bullied high school student Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) becomes the masked psycho’s next intended victim, only narrowly escaping the attempt on her life after he stabs her with the stolen blade—after which they magically swap bodies come midnight.
As high-concept pitches go, the idea of merging Freaky Friday with Friday the 13th (1980) is one of those glaringly obvious ideas you can’t believe nobody’s done before. Body-swap comedies like Big (1988) and Vice Versa (1988) are always entertaining, as are slashers when they have something on their mind, so it’s unsurprising Freaky ends up being as enjoyable as it is.
Beyond the alluring premise, this is a gift for the two lead actors. Vince Vaughn has recently moved away from the frat boy comedies that made his name in the 2000s, with tougher roles in True Detective and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) that play to his imposing physicality. Freaky is almost the exact middle-ground for him, as he’s allowed to do his best Jason tribute (walking slowly around wearing a mask and wielding a big knife), but can spend most of the film tapping into his feminine side with a burlesque portrayal of a teenage girl. It’s the routine Jack Black did well in the recent Jumanji movies, although I’d argue Vaughn does a more believable job with the facial mannerisms and body language.
But Vaughn’s equal is Kathryn Newton (Pokémon Detective Pikachu) as Millie, who gets to do the opposite. Her character is nicely setup as an attractive wallflower struggling after the death of her father, picked on at school by the mean girls and often the target of derision because she’s the school’s lame beaver mascot. She also struggles to assert herself with a hard-nosed woodwork teacher (Alan Ruck) and isn’t able to communicate her feelings to a boy (Uriah Shelton) she fancies, so tends to just hang out with her two childhood friends: likeable Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and gay Josh (Misha Osherovich).
It’s the change for each character that fuels a lot of Freaky’s entertainment value, as the Butcher awakens to find he’s in a weaker female body and must now contend with high school, while Millie in the Butcher’s body finds she’s a gross mess everyone’s afraid of. But there are also clever ways that each character’s new physical situation is made interesting, as the Butcher realises being a girl is the perfect cover to continue his slaying without arousing as much suspicion.
And we’re quietly happy to see a silent bad-ass version of Millie kill the students and teachers who upset the real Millie earlier in the film. It’s perhaps less fun to see the real Millie have to convince Nyla and Josh she’s their friend, in order for them to help her find the dagger and reverse the spell before the body-swap becomes permanent, but there’s still fun in seeing Vaughn playing a girl coping with having male genitals. The film does explore issues of gender identity more overtly in the last act, when one character start seeing middle-aged-male-Millie as the person she really is despite her appearance… but not to any great depth.
Freaky is less successful tackling the deeper questions a body-swap situation might also explore, being more comfortable with its violent set-pieces and broad comedy adventure plot. Happy Death Day had a similar tone and pace, but one failing with Christopher Landon’s earlier films was their softened violence and lack of edge. Despite riffing on gory ’80s slashers, the Happy Death Day’s were diluted in order to get a PG-13 rating and draw a wider audience. This decision didn’t ruin them, but they would have been improved with a better lure for the slasher fans they only appealed to on a superficial level.
Thankfully, Landon’s been given more leeway by Blumhouse Productions this time and Freaky isn’t afraid to depict wince-inducing violence and blood-soaked killings. The opening contains three creative murders and there’s a bravura moment involving a table saw, which all helps make Freaky a genuinely decent slasher even without the body-swap shenanigans.
Landon’s spiritual follow-up to the Happy Death Day films is certainly an improvement in terms of balancing a tone and finding enough laughs to match the gore. There’s a touch of Scream (1996) in how knowing some of the characters are about horror movie tropes, but it’s more overtly silly and doesn’t have any serious intentions of making audiences move to the edge of their seat. It knows it’s ridiculous and just wants to have fun with the cliched of the two genres it’s a hybrid of. A lot of things could’ve gone wrong along the way, but with an engaging storyline and two delightful performances from Vaughn and Newton (who shows us what a Terminator going to to class might be like), Freaky works surprisingly well.
I just hope there isn’t a sequel of diminishing returns because that knife’s still out there…
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USA | 2020 | 102 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Christopher Landon.
writers: Michael Kennedy & Christopher Landon.
starring: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Katie Finneran, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich & Alan Ruck.