"Freaky Friday the 13th." It's a premise that pretty much writes itself. And with Freaky, the newest horror-comedy romp from Happy Death Day director Christopher Landon, the body swap movie formula gets a bloody twist.
The gist of Freaky goes as such: 17-year-old Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) is having a rough go of it at school. With her father's death still looming, it's evident she's not in a great place. Our heroine's struggle with grief gets way more complicated when The Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) comes to town, and when she comes face-to-face with the masked murderer, their lives are left profoundly changed.
We've seen this type of body swap sequence play out before in films like Freaky Friday (both the Barbara Harris/Jodie Foster original and the Jamie Lee Curtis/Lindsay Lohan remake), but somehow, it took all this time for someone to come up with the idea of mixing up a cold-blooded serial killer with an unknowing teenage girl. (Rob Schneider’s The Hot Chick came pretty close, but we’d rather pretend that one didn’t exist.)
But as brilliant as this twist reads on paper, the end-result falls a bit flat. Landon has already made a name for himself as Blumhouse's go-to guy for supplying nuanced homage to some of horror's most recognizable tropes. He did it with the overused time-loop narrative in both Happy Death Day movies, which not only paid tribute to Alfred Hitchcock but submitted a heart-felt, thought-provoking exploration of what it's like to lose a parent when you're young.
Freaky sets itself up for a similar trajectory. The film attempts to examine Millie's loss and the enduring impact death can have on a family, but once she switches bodies with the flick's dead-eyed killer, that topic crumbles by the wayside.
Part of the reason for this is simple: Freaky is Vince Vaughn's movie. The majority of the heavy-lifting seen throughout the 100-minute story is done by the veteran actor, who gets to showcase both his comedic and dramatic chops. It's through his work that we see Millie's growth as a character when, after drowning in the grief from her father's death, she's literally put in death's shoes for a day to face that difficult trauma.
When Millie is in the body of the Butcher, some delightful moments do take place. We watch as she discovers the positives of peeing standing up and the negatives of getting kicked in the balls. But as the joke of a young girl existing in an older man's body plays out, the visuals of Vaughn doing his best to come across as feminine as possible brings to mind the antiquated concept of "running like a girl."
This male-centric perspective on Millie's character arc could simply be due to the fact that a man (first-time feature writer Michael Kennedy) is the one behind the script. They say write what you know, and there’s no denying that female roles are often best represented when the ones fleshing them out are also women.
That's not to say there aren't touching scenes that play out in Millie's journey, including one where the teenager bonds with her depressed mother (Katie Finneran) through a dressing room door. Another finds Millie pursuing intimacy with her crush in the backseat of a car. But as impactful as these could feel on paper, the result gets deflated when you realize it all happens with Vaughn portraying the girl.
Meanwhile, Newton may not get a lot of heavy lifting with regards to the emotional character work Vaughn brings to the table, but boy does she murder it — literally.
Newton clearly had loads of fun working through each gory sequence. The classroom scene with Alan Ruck's abusive, chauvinist, woodshop teacher will surely leave people talking. His cameo feels like a gruff kick in the pants to the "Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off" phase of his life. And his appearance here is highlighted by the explosion of violence that ends up taking place. I won't spoil it, but it wouldn't be surprising if the majority of the movie's makeup effects budget was spent on this one scene.
Freaky also has plenty of amusing and heartfelt moments. Through most of it, Millie's best friends, Nyla and Josh, are the ones that bring on that levity. What makes their roles even more important here is the fact that Nyla is Black and Josh is gay — two character types that notoriously die early in the genre. But instead of falling victim to the Butcher, the duo form an unlikely bond with Vince Vaughn's Millie. A bevy of Gen Z wisdom and snappy one-liners bridges the symbolic generational gap here, creating a fun team-up that allows the kids to prove there's much more to them than just skin color and sexual orientation.
Landon being in the director's chair does make it damn near impossible to not compare Freaky to his Happy Death Day movies. But the staggering amount of story and character development in that recent horror classic easily outshines the groundwork that was laid in Freaky.
But it might not be the director or the writer’s fault. Happy Death Day's time-loop trope comes with a set of built-in rules regarding how that world should operate, and the movie fit neatly into those parameters. Jessica Rothe's well-rounded talent as an actor further brought Tree's layered story to life, and established a deep set of emotional roots that carried the original and its sequel to box office success.
The body-swap narrative of Freaky comes with a different set of story challenges. Take Freaky Friday, for example. That movie focuses on the troublesome relationship dynamic between a mother and daughter. Common ground is eventually achieved after they walk around in each other's shoes for a while. That’s not really possible when the two protagonists of this movie have nothing in common.
But Freaky isn’t Freaky Friday. This is a slasher movie chock full of gruesome kills and catchy one-liners. It's got heart, humor, and delivers low-stakes fun. Horror movie Easter eggs are also featured throughout, from Friday the 13th to Prom Night (and even a subtle nod to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining) to keep fans of the genre interested.
Considering this new Blumhouse flick had its official theatrical premiere at a packed drive-in theater, successfully closing out 2020's popular genre film festival Beyond Fest, Freaky should be celebrated for bringing a terrifying new twist to a tired comedy subgenre. It’s nowhere near perfect, but it does give us a bloody fun break from all this year's real-world insanity. That, right there, totally makes it worth the price of admission.
Freaky premieres in theaters on Friday, November 13th.