Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Filmmakers generally work within a particular genre they know their way around. Occasionally you’ll see a director make the leap from one genre to another, but their skills are still mostly defined by what they cut their teeth doing. You can still see James Wan’s horror roots in his action films, and you can still see Adam McKay’s comedy roots in his political dramas. On a deeper level, producers, studios and production companies generally stick to a certain genre or style, as they know how to market it to their desired audience. With that in mind, it’s fascinating to see how successfully Blumhouse Productions has been able to deliver horror films that easily cross genre boarders. This brings us to Freaky (2020), Christopher Landon’s latest blend of slasher, horror, teen comedy and romance.
We are introduced to 17 year old Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), an unpopular and socially awkward girl attending a local high school with her friends Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla (Celeste O’Connor). Millie spends her days dealing with bullies, nasty teachers and her secret crush, Booker (Uriah Shelton). Her uneventful life is upended when The Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) leaves many murdered teenagers in his wake. Millie nearly becomes his next victim, but a mysterious magic knife he was using causes the pair to switch places. Millie wakes up in The Butchers body and he wakes up in hers. The Butcher finds being stuck in a 17 year old girl’s body advantageous, whereas Millie needs to survive in The Butcher’s body long enough to figure a way to reverse the switch. Naturally, it’s one of those 24 hour curses that has until midnight to be undone.
If the premise and the title weren’t enough of an indicator, Freaky is a slasher film reimagining of Freaky Friday, making this the fifth time Mary Rodgers’ novel has been adapted. Given how much milage filmmakers get out of body swap stories, it’s amazing that no one thought to turn this into a horror-comedy before now. The concept is wonderfully ridiculous, so the idea of a slasher and his victim being the subject is a no-brainer. Director Christopher Landon is aware of that fact and ensures that nearly every available gag is attempted. Not every joke is a knee-slapper and some veer into genre tropes, but when the jokes land they are real winners. Within the slasher film context, there’s more than enough material to find new ways of making a body swap fun. The humour is at its best when we see clever (or grotesque) details of how the pair operate in each others shoes.
Right along side the comedy is of course the horror element, which is delivered with shocking levels of gore. The violence is over the top and gratuitous, but it works because it’s clearly intended to complement the film’s comedic absurdity. Right off the bat we are subjected to some pretty gruesome sequences, all of which hold nothing back and leave your jaw on the ground (right before you start laughing until it hurts). Granted, the violence will probably still be too much for some viewers and it’s doubtful everyone will see the humour in it. In that case, it’s fortunate that the horror sequences still work within the genre when played straight. However, an additional drawback is that the genuine moments of terror are a little too sparse, meaning you may find yourself waiting too long for the next horror sequence.
Thankfully, you’re not bored in-between the action because there’s a lot of narrative attention given to the characters. This is where the teen romance element comes in, as much of the runtime is dedicated to making us like and care about our teenage heroes. They aren’t the most complicated or the most original cast of characters, but their broad traits aren’t undercooked to the point of being dull. As soon as Josh, Nyla, Millie, Booker and the rest are introduced, we are immediately able to figure out who they are and what they’re about. Having very broad characters does mean they can sometimes seem thin, but it still works because each of them serve a function to the overall plot. Additionally, the cast manages to bring a lot out of what little they are given.
Vince Vaughn arguably has had one of the most tumultuous careers of any A-list leading man. His career got off to a great start with hits like Swingers (1996), which ultimately defined his comedic persona for years to come. Sadly, his particular brand became less relevant as he got older, meaning he’s been desperately reinventing himself recently. Thankfully, this reinvention has worked, as proven by his turns in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017). Freaky is a fantastic vehicle for Vaughn, as he shows off the full range of his new found intensity, as well as his traditional comedic talents. He is matched by Kathryn Newton, who easily oscillates between bookish charm and unnerving intimidation. They get turns to play the same characters and thus are a perfect double act. Interestingly, Vaughn has better chemistry with Millie’s circle of friends than Newton does, but it’s not a huge issue since Vaughn pals around with them for majority of the film.
Even with its blend of genres and the likeable cast, Freaky’s script does feel like it could’ve used one more pass. The character beats are all there, the story works and the plot is relatively tight, but the clever genre blending doesn’t conjure a completely fresh narrative out of the body swap concept. If you’ve seen at least one body swap film or at least one slasher film, you can see where every story thread will eventually lead. The dialogue also could’ve benefited from another edit, as some lines feel like basic placeholders. As far as nitpicks go, these are both mostly excusable because the film is very intentionally evoking an enjoyable Grindhouse aesthetic. Blumhouse Productions usually delivers interesting films, so if they wanted Freaky to have a more nuanced screenplay, it would have had one.
Calling a film like this ‘good’ can be a contentious statement for some. How can silly nonsense like Freaky get a 7/10, yet an intelligent and respectable film like Tenet (2020) only gets a 6.5/10? For the record, a 5/10 is the definition of average, therefore anything with a 6 or higher is an overall good film. That being said, a film with simple ambitions that are mostly achieved can ultimately be a more satisfying product than a film with high ambitions which aren’t fully achieved. Freaky isn’t perfect, but its pieces come together to form an enjoyable ride.
Best way to watch it: In a Grindhouse cinema back in the 1970s.