This year, horror giants Blumhouse Productions have primarily focused on nostalgia for their scares. Already in 2020 Blumhouse turned the 1970’s series Fantasy Island into a supernatural horror film, updated H.G. Wells’ century-old book for The Invisible Man, and made a sequel to a cult 90s favorite with The Craft: Legacy. Blumhouse’s latest release, Freaky, takes its name from the body-swapping Freaky Friday films, yet its nostalgia lies with the horror films of the 80s and 90s. This combination of a smart, high-concept idea and appreciation for over-the-top slasher films makes Freaky as charming as it is gruesome.
Freaky director Christopher Landon is no stranger to taking tried-and-true story ideas that we’re all familiar with and twisting them into frightful stories. Landon’s last two films were the Groundhog Day-inspired Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U. As a writer, Landon wrote the Happy Death Day 2U, as well as the Rear Window update, 2007’s Disturbia. From Blumhouse, Landon has become the right writer and director for the studio’s fun twists on classic ideas.
Freaky doesn’t hide how bonkers it is, going full-on insane from the very beginning, in which a local legend known as the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) kills a house full of kids. The attack is gleefully crazy, with the Butcher shoving an entire wine bottle down a kid’s throat before smashing it, or impaling a head with a tennis racket. Even though it’s a ridiculous massacre, the influences are clear. The Blissfield Butcher wears a mask that can’t help but remind of Jason from the Friday the 13th films (in fact, Freaky’s original title was Freaky Friday the 13th) and the conclusion of the slaughter is a direct homage to Scream.
Yet while in the house, the Blissfield Butcher steals a mysterious dagger known as La Dola. The next day, the Butcher sees his next victim in Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton). She’s a shy, bullied high school girl who is stuck at school one night all alone. The Butcher stabs Millie with La Dola, but when he does, he also receives a stab wound. When the Butcher and Millie wake up the next morning, the two have swapped bodies. The Butcher now looks like an harmless teenage girl, while Millie is now trapped in the 6 foot, 5 inch body of a serial killer. But if one of them doesn’t stab the other within 24 hours, they’ll both be stuck in their new bodies for good.
Christopher Landon, who wrote the Freaky script with Michael Kennedy, have a lot of fun playing with the pros and cons of this switch. Now as a teenage girl, the Blissfield Butcher can kill other kids with relative ease, then pretend to be innocent. Yet adults can overpower her with no problem. In the body of the Butcher, Millie now has the power and strength that she longs for in her everyday life, but with the Blissfield Butcher now a wanted man, it’s almost impossible for her to hide in such a towering figure.
What makes Freaky‘s concept work so extremely well is the fantastic performances by Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton. Vaughn plays Millie-in-the-Butcher without going ridiculous or dopey. Vaughn’s performance truly makes it seem like the persona of Millie has taken over his body. His performance is especially at its best during one scene in the backseat of a car with Booker (Uriah Shelton), Millie’s crush. Vaughn plays the moment completely believably, never making the moment seem like a joke or undercutting what this moment would mean for Millie, yet still also making it understandably funny because of the context. Without giving the scene away, it’s actually a lovely, subversive scene in a film that at first seems like it will be fairly straightforward with its ideas.
Kathryn Newton is equally good in Freaky, even though her role is less flashy than Vaughn’s. As the Butcher-in-Millie, Newton is clearly the sadistic killer, yet uses the advantages of his new body, swapping between maniac and upright young lady at the drop of a hat. Once the swap happens, Vaughn is basically staying in the same mode throughout the film, yet Newton has to go back-and-forth continuously and does so brilliantly.
Even though Freaky does a surprisingly great job making its two lead performances strong and credible, the film’s main problem might be building up the world around them while not doing much with it. For example, Millie’s mother Paula (Katie Finneran) is an alcoholic widow, while Millie’s older sister Char (Dana Drori) is a police officer constantly fighting with her mother for her substance abuse. Neither of these characters have any real arc of their own.
The same is true of Millie’s friends Nyla and Josh (Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich), who seem to exist only to give Millie-in-the-Butcher someone on her side, and to make the joke that since Nyla is Black and Josh is gay, they’re the most likely to die in this scenario. Still, Freaky does enough groundwork to set up a potential sequel which could give these characters more to do in the future.
On the surface, Freaky is a wild horror-comedy update on Freaky Friday that allows Christopher Landon free rein to homage the horror films of old. However, it’s also a startlingly intelligent look at gender biases, the inherently brutal nature of high school, and finding self-respect in one’s self. Freaky is a smart social commentary hidden within a hilarious comedy, hidden within a gory horror film.
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