With the one-two punch of Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U, Christopher Landon has established himself as a unique voice in genre cinema. By mashing up horror tropes with sci-fi concepts, and casting the resulting stories with highly energetic performers (many of whom are gruesomely dispatched in very fun ways), Landon creates movies that, above all else, are fun to watch, and if you’re a fan of genre cinema, you can feel the reverence he holds towards his stylistic forbears. Basically, he is someone whose films you don’t want to miss, and his latest, Freaky, is no exception.
The plot is simple: Masked serial killer (Vince Vaughn) stabs teen victim (Kathryn Newton) with a cursed knife and the two magically switch bodies. The lore surrounding this supernatural artifact states that if the swap isn’t reversed within 24 hours, it will become permanent. The obvious reference points here are Freaky Friday and the Friday the 13th franchise, and although the script tries to elevate both influences to equal standing, the tone is more similar to the former than the latter. While not a complaint, I should note that this is a fantastical teen comedy first and a slasher movie second. The good news is that it’s a successful example of both. The comedy is mostly quite funny, and largely based in character rather than gags, and the horror elements are delightfully gruesome. One particular kill ranks amongst my favorites of the year (yes, horror fans like to rank annual kills).
Our hero, Millie, is a bit repressed. While not the worst example of “nerd who is actually hot once she takes her glasses off,” there are shades of it here, and if not for the film’s knowing ways, it would seem kind of ridiculous. Nonetheless, she’s not the most popular girl in the world, and the fact that she stays home with her mother most nights doesn’t help. In her defense, it’s only been a year since her father died, and Millie’s dutifulness toward her mother, who has gown into somewhat of a clingy drunk, is commendable. She’s planning to skip homecoming in order to hang out with Mom, and has been filling out college applications in secret — Mom would be distraught if her baby moved away.
After school one night, Millie finds herself in the path of the Blissfield Butcher, the aforementioned masked killer, who stabs her with the magical knife, kicking off this body swap adventure in bloody style.
So now the Butcher is running around in Millie’s body which, despite its physical limitations, grants him unprecedented access to victims, while Millie, now a very big middle aged man, finds that her newfound strength is no consolation for the fact that she’s wanted by the cops and smells like hot dog water to boot. If she thought dating was hard yesterday, it’s impossible now.
Also, Alan Ruck shows up and chews scenery like a boss.
The film unspools as dual intersecting narratives: the butcher reveling in his new body, accidentally raising Millie’s social stature in the process, and Millie trying to prove to everyone that she really is who she says she is while trying to get her own body back. The pace is quick, and even though the stakes are high, it’s a pretty breezy watch. This is mostly a good thing, but it’s resultant of the film’s most glaring downfall: as bonkers a movie as it can be, at its heart it’s rather formulaic. If you’ve seen a body swap flick before, you know exactly how every plot beat goes down. And if you’ve seen any slasher movie ever, you can tell exactly who is going to die and when. Freaky seems to be aware that it’s playing within formula, which helps to pave over this problem a bit, but after Landon’s previous two films, I don’t think I’m wrong to expect some subversion of these tropes. At the same time, his latest seems much more geared at the high school set, not at 36 year old schlubs, so its intended audience might not have as much of a working knowledge of these tropes for subversion to play right.
Is that just a fancy old man way of saying “I’m smarter than these danged kids”? Ugh, probably. What have I become? I feel like a middle aged man AND SUDDENLY THE FILM’S THEMES RESONATE!
That’s right! Despite being a bit by the numbers, there’s a lot of very cool stuff being employed here. The cast is diverse overall, and with Millie’s two best friends being a young woman of color and homosexual male, the film finds many angles through which to talk about identity, and the wisdom that comes from experience. Millie and her friends validate and support each other in ways that I rarely see depicted, especially amongst youths, and it helps to strip the film of the cynicism typically dripping off of slashers. While I’m certainly not above mean-spirited fun, this sunny disposition feels fresh and exciting. So even though I’m laughing at how funny it is to see Vince Vaughn run “like a girl” while speaking and gesturing in ways incongruent with his exterior, I’m also rooting for our heroes to survive (and I can’t say that about many slasher flicks).
While likely only accidentally resonant, there is a scene where everyone expresses frustration that the homecoming dance is cancelled on account of multiple murders having occurred that day. The kids instead choose to have a secret, underground homecoming dance at the old mill (yes, there’s an old mill), and all I could think about was how we’re still in quarantine and the theater where I normally would have seen this movie just closed its doors permanently.
EVEN THE VIOLENT MURDERER IN THIS MOVIE WEARS A MASK. WEAR YOUR MASKS, PEOPLE.
Fittingly, Freaky opens in cinemas Friday, November 13, 2020.