Freaky (2020)

Too bad Freaky couldn’t have called itself “Freaky Friday the 13th”, since that’s basically the concept behind the movie.  Freaky is a mashup of slasher movies (Friday the 13th, Halloween) and body swapping movies (Freaky Friday, Big).  The combination of those two genres proves to be an original and rewarding one, producing scares, gross-out moments, tender moments and plenty of laughs.  Highly recommended.

In Freaky, the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) accidentally swaps bodies with high schooler Millie (Kathryn Newton) when he tries to kill her with a knife once used in Aztec rituals.  If the stabbing isn’t repeated within twenty-four hours, the two will remain in the other’s body forever.  The knife is basically a plot device (or McGuffin) that starts the clock ticking and serves as the jumping-off point for some hilarious physical comedy by the two leads.  The knife (named “La Dola”) and its powers strain credibility, but horror movies generally and slasher movies in particular rarely score high on the credibility scale.  (If they were, Michael Myers would have died at the end of the first Halloween, or at least would have run away whimpering after being stabbed in the eye with that clothes hanger.)  In all honesty, I can go along with pretty much any plot contrivance a horror movie throws at me, so long as it delivers.

Freaky definitely delivers the goods.  It features oodles of gore, several effective scares, genuinely funny dialog and excellent acting.  (No nudity, though.  Kids these days…)  Directed and co-written by Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity, Happy Death Day), Freaky goes about its business with a brash confidence that only a seasoned director of horror movies can provide.

After the initial stabbing and go their separate ways, Millie and the Butcher wake up to their new reality.  Millie (in the Butcher’s body) wakes up in what we would expect a serial killer’s room, while the Butcher (in Millie’s body) wakes up in a room with a poster of a boy band and other girlish decorations.  Over the next twenty-four hours, Millie learns how to navigate the world as a 6’ 6” man wanted by police.  Of course, facing the world in Vince Vaughn’s body is like being a Sasquatch: you tower over just about everybody and can toss people around like rag dolls.  At one point she picks up a dickish high school boy with one hand.  She discovers other novel perks, like being able to pee standing up.  There are disadvantages to being the biggest person around, though.  Tree branches suddenly become obstacles, and fitting in a subcompact car is nearly impossible.  Having a man’s private parts does come with two distinct (and highly sensitive) disadvantages.

The Blissfield Butcher also learns the pros and cons of being a 5’ 5” high school girl.  He can no longer overpower anyone, at one point exclaiming, “This body is useless!”  But, when you’re a high school girl, nobody suspects that you are a serial killer.  In Millie’s body, the Butcher can walk around in broad daylight, picking off victims who underestimate her viciousness and blood lust.  High school boys in particular are easy duped, since they primarily think with their privates whenever a pretty girl is around.

Pulling off the body-swap aspect of the plot requires complete commitment on behalf of both of the leads.  Kathryn Newton (Paranormal Activity 4, Blockers, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) adapts the rigid posture and predatory stare of a serial killer, which hilariously doesn’t scare anybody.  High school boys think she’s just playing the bad girl, until the blood starts flowing, that is.  Vince Vaughn (he’s been in over fifty movies) effectively turns himself into a high school girl, adopting the physical mannerisms and speech patterns in a way that’s funny without becoming offensive.

The movie gets plenty of mileage using Vince Vaughn’s physical attributes for laughs, from his stature to the (rumored) size of his…member.  To Vaughn’s credit, he gamely goes along.  He also plays a scene where he and Millie’s boyfriend confide their attraction to each other and eventually share a kiss completely straight.  I never would have thought in a million years that Vaughn would have taken a movie that speaks fairly directly to gender identity issues.  The movie only works if his performance and the movie are sincere, and he pulls it off effortlessly.

In addition to the excellent performances by the two leads, the script is full of clever twists and turns.  At the outset, the movie dutifully fulfills an expected horror movie trope.  The Butcher dons a mask (not a hockey mask, but close) and dispatches a quartet of aggressively unlikable horny teenagers in a variety of ways.  He even mirrors Michael Myers’ head tilt when admiring his handiwork.  After the body swap, the movie subverts our expectations by turning Millie, who would be the “final girl” in any other horror movie, into the killer at large.  Instead of lurking in the shadows, the Butcher quickly realizes that being a high-school girl is the ultimate cover.  Nobody expects him/her to be a killer, so he hides in plain sight.  Mille, in the body of the killer, is reduced to running away from danger at every turn, at one point wearing the mask of a famous football player as a disguise.

In a particularly clever plot twist, the Butcher (as Millie) slaughters all of Millie’s high school tormentors.  The mean girl, the obnoxious jocks and the overbearing shop room teacher all meet sticky ends.  Millie killed them all, but since the Butcher was the one who actually did it, the killings don’t actually count as revenge.  Instead, by having the Butcher kill them, he’s fulfilling Millie’s unconscious wish fulfillment, her id wrecking havoc without her knowledge.  I don’t know if Landon was intentionally referencing Forbidden Planet reference, but it’s a cool analogy regardless.

I hadn’t seen Vince Vaughn in a comedy in some time.  While his recent turns as a supporting actor in dramas (Fighting with My Family, Hacksaw Ridge) have been quite good, I’ve avoided most of his comedic roles since Wedding Crashers.  I managed to get through The Internship, but mostly out of disbelief that he (and Owen Wilson) could make such a preposterous movie.  Vaughn has starred in so many lackluster comedies over the years that I had forgotten how funny he can be.  Congratulations to him on finding a vehicle that fully leverages his sense of humor as well as his sensitivity.

Kathryn Newton does well as both Mille and the Butcher.  Her acting challenge is just as difficult as Vaughn’s, having to portray two completely different people convincingly.  As the Butcher, I appreciated that she clearly relished killing other people.  You never can tell when the killer has a mask on whether they enjoy their work, or its just another job to them.  (Except for Freddy Kruger.  That guy clearly enjoyed his work too much.)
While the Butcher is definitely dead at the end of the movie, the Aztec knife is still in circulation.  While a sequel could easily be based on two completely different leads, I’m dubious as to whether it can be pulled off successfully or not.  If Landon decides to do that, I hope the result works better than Happy Death Day 2U.  Whether that comes to pass or not, check out Freaky.

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