Sometimes with movies, being given what you want is preferable to being given what you need. I remain a great admirer of the Happy Death Day movies because they delivered on a promise by delivering on their premise of a fresh take on the slasher film. Those films came courtesy of writer/director Christopher Landon (who also wrote all but the first Paranormal Activity films), who returns this week with Freaky, based on yet another very silly sub-genre—the body-swap comedy—that he still manages to make work in an exercise of personality winning over a fairly standard serial killer plot.
Not afraid to lean into the gore, Freaky opens with a murder—several murders actually—by a serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn, making full use of his towering frame), who kills a family whose parents collect ancient artifacts, including a mystical dagger that the Butcher takes with him after he’s done the deed. We also meet high schooler Millie (Kathryn Newton), who has more drama in her life than she cares to think about, living with an emotionally damaged, alcoholic mother (Katie Finneran) and her sheriff sister Charlene (Dana Drori). She finds solace in her friendships with Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), who comes dangerously close to falling into a gay best friend stereotype).
One night while waiting for her mother to pick her up from school, she’s attacked by the Butcher, who attempts to stab her with his new dagger. Instead, the two switch bodies in the process. There are few things more amusing than watching the brawny Vaughn take on the personality of a teenage girl, and I fully endorse it. Vaughn turns in a performance that is part physical comedy, part personality shift, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him trying to convince Millie’s two best friends who he really is by doing a cheer that she performs regularly as the football team’s mascot. Eventually the three figure out what has happened and why, but more importantly they determine that they only have 24 hours to reverse the curse by getting the two of them back together and using the dagger once again.
As much fun as Vaughn is clearly having, Newton does a terrific job taking on the persona of a brooding psychopath. She tarts herself up a bit and thoroughly enjoys the freedom of occupying a high school girl’s body so that he may roam the halls unnoticed, figuring out his next murder. Naturally, having a sheriff for a sister comes into play, especially when the kids and Vaughn realize that the dagger is in an evidence locker at the police station. There isn’t a whole lot of subtext in Freaky, but there are some pretty remarkable moments, including one in which Vaughn as Millie finally confesses her intense like for her crush Booker (Uriah Shelton), who it turns out likes her too. It’s a cute moment, especially when the fully adult Vaughn leans in for that first kiss with teenage Booker. There’s also a sequence in which Millie (with the Butcher’s personality) seeks revenge on her asshole shop teacher (a nasty turn by Alan Ruck), and the two get into a really brutal hand-to-hand fight that ends in perhaps the grizzliest death in the whole film. I’ll say it again, the blood truly flows here.
Filmmaker Landon is a wonderful wealth of dark and wicked takes on familiar material, and I hope he keeps finding new ways to reinvent tired plots and put out material that concentrates on simply being fun. Freaky isn’t quite as inventive as his Happy Death Day movies, but it’s close. Newton continues her streak of being a solid presence in such films as Blockers, Lady Bird, and Ben Is Back, as well as series like “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Big Little Lies,” but Vaughn is so good here, it’s almost a rediscovery for me. Most of what I’ve seen him in in the last few years have been serious turns in films like Hacksaw Ridge, Dragged Across Concrete, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Fighting with My Family, so it’s good to see him return to his comedy roots and look like he’s genuinely enjoying himself.
This is one of the few films I’ve seen recently that’s opening in theaters that would be worth checking out if there’s enough of an audience to laugh and scream along with you. That might still sound like a dicey proposition, but the film genuinely delivers on what it promises, and seeing it with a small audience certainly would have enhanced my enjoyment of it even more.
The film opens theatrically on Friday, November 13. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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