There may not be a more consistently entertaining filmmaker working in horror right now than Christopher Landon. Although skilled in creating seriously darker films such as the Paranormal Activity franchise, Landon seems particularly interested in horror-comedies which play with the tropes of the genre. In his previous Happy Death Day films which adapted the premise from the comedy Groundhogs Day into an intriguing slasher film scenario. Landon continues the formula with Freaky, an updated version of the classic Disney film Freaky Friday. This time instead of mother and daughter trading bodies, we have a teenage girl and a homicidal maniac do the switch.
With Disney’s notoriously litigious nature, it’s a miracle that Mickey’s high priced lawyers haven’t gone after Blumhouse for copyright infringement. Fortunately, they haven’t since Freaky is very much a loving tribute to the goofy body-swap genre of which Freaky Friday is one of the more fondly remembered examples. And that’s not the only film lovingly referenced in Freaky.
Landon’s love for the slasher genre is evident throughout the film with subtle nods to Friday the 13th, Halloween, Candyman, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One may even be tempted to think that the whole scenario of a possessed teenager stalking students in a high school is itself ultimately inspired by I was a Teenage Werewolf, starring the director’s own father, Michael Landon.
Millie (Kathryn Newton) is attractive, but a rather awkward teenage girl. She cheers on her high school football team, not as a cheerleader, but as the mascot, wearing a silly beaver costume. While most of the jocks tease her and spread lewd innuendo about her behind her back, the more sensitive Booker (Uriah Shelton) shares longing glances with Millie. Too self-conscious to approach Booker herself, Millie denies herself the pleasure of romance. Much of her issues arose from the death of her father with whom she was dearly attached.
Meanwhile, a vicious serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) is murdering the townsfolk. After slaughtering a few rich kids in a mansion, he steals an ornate knife. Unbeknownst to him is that the knife is really a sacred ritual dagger used by the Aztecs for human sacrifice. Back on the prowl, the Blissfield Butcher sets his sights on Millie. Unable to run away while wearing the bulky mascot suit, she succumbs to the Butcher who plunges the dagger into Millie’s chest. It instantly creates an identical wound on the Butcher. The next morning they wake up in each other’s bodies. The Butcher now has the perfect cover to lure and kill victims, while Millie must deal with being in the body of a wanted criminal. Her only hope is to convince her best friends Nyla and Joshua (Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich) to believe her and to avoid being apprehended by her sister (Dana Drori), a local police officer. Time is ticking for Millie as it is revealed that she has till midnight to switch back or the swap will remain permanent.
What really makes the film work is the commitment Vince Vaughn and Katherine Newton have to their characters. Vince Vaughn hasn’t been this funny in years. In Freaky, Vaughn truly channels the mannerisms, voice, and attitude of a teenage girl. In contrast, Newton’s Millie isn’t nearly as interesting as Vaughn’s take on the character, but she more than makes up for it in her version of the Butcher. Her cold, machine-like persona sells the idea of the Butcher as an unstoppable and serious threat. Newton puts a great deal of athleticism into the role and one can imagine her Butcher going toe-to-toe with any action star.
Gorehounds will salivate over the kills in Freaky. We have eye-gouging, impalement, slit throats, sawing in half, and even death by cryogenic chamber! The gore effects are very well done and even the CGI, used for the more supernatural elements of the story are also highly impressive.
Landon, who himself is gay, has created a horror film with a very queer sensibility. The idea of a gender swap has many social implications. The Butcher seems rather fluid in his sexuality considering the ease he takes to seducing male victims and embrace in his new body’s sexual power. Booker and Millie share a romantic kiss that isn’t hampered by the fact she is in an older man’s body. Joshua is openly gay and remarks how that and Nyla’s blackness make them targets in slasher films. There is talk of proper pronouns, a jock conflicted by his same-sex attraction and some fun poked at gay stereotypes. While often funny, none of this is ever mean-spirited and it accomplishes Landon’s goal of flipping the standard horror tropes.
One downside is that Katie Finneran is rather wasted in her role as Millie’s mother. There is a fine scene between her and Vaughn in which she shows a great deal of emotional vulnerability, but she basically is ignored for most of the film. It is somewhat implied that the death of the father has led to some distance in the relationship between mother and daughter, but that is not fully fleshed out in the script. Ultimately, it doesn’t seem that the father’s death ever truly plays into the plot of the film at all.
Overall, Freaky is an incredibly fun film. It has enough blood, guts, and callbacks to classic horror icons and tropes to keep horror aficionados satisfied. It likewise appeals to the younger, more diverse crowd looking for increased visibility in the horror genre.