'Freaky': Film Review

FREAKY Still 1 - Publicity - H 2020
Brian Douglas/Universal Pictures
A clever twist on classic horror that comes up short.
11/13/2020

Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton co-star in Christopher Landon’s horror comedy follow-up to the ‘Happy Death Day’ movies.

With Halloween and Friday the 13th falling just weeks apart this year, horror fans may feel the pang of an epically missed opportunity as Hollywood’s exhibition options remain constrained by reduced capacity in many theaters and still-shuttered screens in some major markets. In an emphatic show of confidence in the enthusiasm of moviegoing audiences, however, Universal Pictures plans a wide release for Freaky, opening the film in more than 2,000 theaters in the midst of the pandemic on the iconic Friday date.

With so little studio competition among new releases, this may prove a smart move, even if Christopher Landon’s slasher comedy looks unlikely to generate as much enthusiasm as the Happy Death Day features. Although Landon and co-screenwriter Michael Kennedy have latched onto a winning concept, pairing the body-swap conceit with serial killer thrills, they’ve freighted the film with so many trite life-lesson moments that the fun gradually drains from the narrative, like blood from a murder victim.

That outcome isn’t evident though in an extended opening sequence introducing the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), a hardworking masked murderer who’s been launching annual killing sprees for the past several decades. Although considered an urban legend by some, he demonstrates serious slasher chops when he resurfaces, taking out four high-schoolers chilling at an upscale mansion, where he also scores a cool new weapon: an ancient Aztec ritual dagger.

Depending on personal preference, these preliminary scenes may offer too much information or not nearly enough. The Butcher reappears with no personal history whatsoever, despite his formidable criminal exploits, which seem to have escaped close examination by local law enforcement. At the same time, the initial action dwells in excruciating detail on his fiendishly imaginative methods of execution, disappointingly wasted on characters who barely figure in the ensuing plot.

Instead, the focus shifts to Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a Blissfield High School senior attempting to keep her head down and just power through her final year, dodging bullying jocks and snarky mean girls while relying on her two besties to help get her through the day. Out and proud Joshua (Misha Osherovich) and unfailingly PC Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) offer far more support than Millie’s no-nonsense police officer sister Charlene (Dana Drori) and emotionally wounded mom Coral (Katie Finneran), still reeling from the death of her husband a year before.

So it seems supremely unfair when the Butcher singles Millie out as his next victim, wielding the mystical blade on a full moon night as he chases her across the school’s football field, where he fumbles the kill, plunging the dagger into her shoulder instead of her chest. That night Millie falls into an uneasy sleep and for good reason, because on Friday the 13th it’s the Butcher who awakens in her petite body. Across town, Millie realizes that the mysterious knife has somehow swapped the murderer’s mind and personality with hers and she’s now trapped in the 200-pound killer’s burly frame with law enforcement closing in.

While the movie’s title winkingly references 2003’s Freaky Friday, a closer comparison might be the 2002 Rob Schneider vehicle The Hot Chick. That comedy also involved a teenage girl’s body swap, as well as a gender switch, with a male criminal. Freaky’s slasher DNA directly derives its menace from Friday the 13th and masked killer Jason Voorhees, and indirectly from a heritage of horror classics like Scream, Halloween and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

On the whole, the filmmakers resist the temptation to go too meta, remaining focused on their plucky protagonist and her determined assailant, especially after Millie discovers that she has only 24 hours to reverse the body swap before the dagger’s curse renders the switch permanent. Instead, Landon and Kennedy emphasize the movie’s distinctly queer sensibility by elaborating the changes that the lead characters experience switching bodies and getting accustomed to their unfamiliar physicality and reoriented gender perspectives.

Vaughn shamelessly steals several scenes portraying Millie’s often comedic feminization of the Butcher’s aggro attitude with flowing body movements, shy facial expressions and gentle vocalizations, particularly in an unexpectedly tender scene with Millie’s all-time crush Booker (Uriah Shelton). Not to be outdone, Newton dials up the belligerence that makes the Butcher so formidable with a plodding gait and glowering glances while discovering the power of her own femininity to counter toxic male hostility.

In fact, the script may occasionally dwell too emphatically on these gender identity issues at the expense of advancing the plot, but there’s no question that the thematic emphasis produces some memorable lines and amusing situations. On balance though, there’s more action than R-rated humor evident throughout, which seems like a missed opportunity after Landon loaded up the two Happy Death Day movies with a surfeit of often surprising and comedic horror situations.

Chalk it up to an abundance of imagination, but Freaky may just be too clever to be all that much fun.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Divide/Conquer
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Katie Finneran, Uriah Shelton, Dana Drori, Alan Ruck
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenwriters: Michael Kennedy, Christopher Landon
Producer: Jason Blum
Executive producers: Couper Samuelson, Jeanette Volturno
Director of photography: Laurie Rose
Production designer: Hillary Andujar
Costume designer: Whitney Anne Adams
Editor: Ben Baudhuin
Music: Bear McCreary
Casting: Sarah Domeier Lindo, Terri Taylor

Rated R, 102 minutes