As a big fan of Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day movies, I’d been excited for his next venture into slasher comedy for a while. Much like in the Jessica Rothe-starred, Groundhog Day-inspired series, Freaky picks up an all-too-known comedic trope and revamps it as a slasher satire, and this time Landon chooses body swap.
With a title that obviously references one of the biggest classics of its kind, Freaky Friday, the filmmaker puts a gruesome serial killer (Vince Vaughn) and a high school teenage girl (Kathryn Newton) in each other’s bodies, and well… You don’t need me to tell you how chaotic that’s gonna be.
The cast is one of the film’s biggest home runs. The particular casting of Vince Vaughn, who’s both a talented dramatic actor and a superb comedian, is especially spot on. Vaughn gets to play this dark, genuinely scary psychotic butcher and then switch to this outcast, frightened teenage girl stuck in his hulking body, and the dynamics of that swap play out hilariously clever. The same goes for Kathryn Newton, who starts off in her own petite blonde self, only to then become a vicious, cold-blooded murderer.While Vaughn gets comedy off of a flamboyant performance that plays around with the dynamics of a tiny girl inhabiting this huge guy’s body, Newton gets it from a cold, calculated and occasionally sick performance as the killer in said girl’s body.
One of the most interestingly clever things that the script and both actors exploit is how the two characters take advantage of their bodies’ features – Millie will often use the strength of the Butcher’s body to her benefit, while also constantly suffering the consequences of being his size; meanwhile the Butcher’s often frustrated at how physically weak and small Millie’s body is, but at the same time exploit the fact that everyone assumes he’s just a defenseless, innocent girl to lure them into danger.
The supporting cast also does a remarkable job. Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich stand out as Millie’s best friends Nyla and Joshua, and the two of them share excellent chemistry with both Newton and Vaughn. The trio of characters is deeply compelling as a team and they deliver some highly entertaining moments and wisecracks, a lot of them coming from Joshua – who’s gay – and how Landon uses him in the story and the most comical moments is simply phenomenal.
From a story perspective, the characters are also extremely needed in several levels, giving that Millie can’t do everything on her own walking around in a wanted killer’s body, and the script (penned by Landon and co-writer Michael Kennedy) explores that necessity with a lot of wit and humor, creating some very entertaining plot-progressing sequences out of it.
On top of the humor, there’s also the violence. The one issue I’ve had with both Happy Death Day films is the fact that they’re not rated R, and I never quite understood why. Freaky, however, is, and it goes bloody violent. Right off the bat in the film’s fantastic opening scene it delivers some brutal deaths of which at least one will make the great hall of greatest kills in the slasher subgenre, stating its business so you know what you’re in for.
As it progresses, it never fails to deliver satisfyingly gory kills with very sharp objects – one is so over-the-top and extra that I couldn’t help but to audibly react to it. I will say, though, that one of the last kills looks like it was cut short to make the movie more presentable on theaters, so I wonder if a fully uncut extended version of the film will be released anytime in the future.
Overall Landon’s direction is as skillful as his writing; the way the filmmaker sets the tone and atmosphere for the suspenseful scenes is highly effective, introducing aesthetic or narrative elements that carefully build up time bomb-like set pieces that imprint a true sense of immediate danger and urgency on the characters, taking us along for the ride.
Landon’s biggest strength as both a director and a writer is his ability not to lose himself in the satire; he walks the fine line between horror and comedy with perfect balance and never loses sight that Freaky is every bit a horror movie as it is a comedy, and doesn’t let it become a straight up spoof film.
It’s not only for shits and giggles that Landon and Kennedy use the body swap trope on the script, however. The writing very intelligently utilizes that plot device to develop arcs of empowerment and identity in the characters, while also peppering some interesting trans thematic subtext throughout the story. Millie and the Butcher each have different reactions to being put into each other’s body, something that is clearly established from the very first moment they wake up after the change; While Millie feels considerably empowered to be in such a physically strong body, she adamantly seeks to get her own body back, and from the other side, the Butcher feels more and more comfortable as he dons Millie’s body with such confidence even if he’s frustrated by its lack of physical strength. At one point, Nyla even corrects the use of pronouns when someone misgenders the Millie-embodied-Butcher. On Millie’s character, the theme of identity crisis is very nuanced and well explored, and while on the Butcher’s side it doesn’t have as much depth, it’s still interestingly developed.
Freaky is also a treat technically speaking. The costume design department is on point, its biggest highlight being the iconic “Butcher Millie” look, with the bright red leather jacket, red lipstick and high-up ponytail; and the photography? Completely gorgeous to look at. Very eye-popping and vibrant colors, incredible red/blue/purple neon-lighting bathing some of the sequences, one particular fantastic use of slow motion in the very visually striking intro sequence when the Butcher first embodies Millie, along with some more whimsical, magical aesthetics relating to the mystical dagger that causes the body swap. The clever editing complements the overall experience greatly, and Bear McCreary’s original score that is both haunting and exciting is the cherry on top.
At the end of the day Freaky is just a bloody blast. It’s yet another smart revamp of the slasher genre by Christopher Landon, with highly compelling characters, hilarious humor, exciting performances led by Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton, striking looks and awe-inspiring violence. Unfortunately it doesn’t go quite as bonkers with its central trope as the Happy Death Day movies do, but it’s still endlessly fun, and it makes me want more from this world in the future. Who knows, maybe a crossover with Happy Death Day is in the cards? Whatever ideas mr. Landon’s got cooking up in his head right now, I can’t wait to see them come to light.
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