They call him the Blissfield Butcher, a serial killer who terrorizes students every year around homecoming time. The annual high school event is a big deal in this small town, and the type of ghost-story fodder that kids use to scare one another with around campfires and late-night keggers. As a quartet of teens quickly learn a few days before the big dance, however, the Butcher isn’t just an urban legend. He’s real. God forbid your parents are the sort of rich folks who dig collecting rare ethnic and indigenous art — all the better for this hulking brute to borrow a creepy African mask and use a primitive spear to impale a promiscuous young woman. (He’ll also use a tennis racket and a rare bottle of wine to kill his victims. Long live wealth status symbols as weapons!)
It’s a dagger in a glass case that attracts the mass murderer’s attention, however. It’s called La Dola, historically used in ancient Mayan sacrifice rituals. That twisted visage on the handle, the one with the glowing red eyes, should make this the perfect addition to his arsenal of killing implements. So the Butcher — he’s played by Vince Vaughn; you learn his identity almost immediately — grabs it. The next day, Millie (Kathryn Newton), a young brainiac who’s catnip for bullies and d-bags alike, happens to be alone after the big football game. The Butcher shows up. She tries to hide. He finds her. Our heroine is about to become Corpse No. 5 when lightning strikes, the knife’s mystical properties are activated, and blammo! Millie’s sister Ginny (Kelly Lamor Wilson), a.k.a. the local cop, comes to her rescue and scares the maniac off. Cut, if you will, to the next day, as Millie awakens to discover her consciousness has been transferred into the Butcher. She’s now stuck inside his hulking frame. And guess who’s temporarily residing in her body?
Suddenly, the movie’s title makes a whole lot of sense: It’s called Freaky because, let’s be honest, Freaky Friday the 13th would have been just a bit too on the nose. You got your body-switcheroo comedy in my slasher flick! Sing it with us: Two great Eighties genres, tasting great together.…
It’s a clever mash-up conceit that director/co-writer Christopher Landon and his cast milk for all its worth, none more so than the two leads. (We’ll come back to those two in a moment.) If you’ve seen the Happy Death Day movies — Landon directed both of these horrorcentric Groundhog Day riffs, and penned the second one — you know that he has a knack for grafting unexpected, familiar parts on to gorefests. Except you don’t need to be fluent in teen movies or mondo trash cinema to recognize how he and screenwriter Michael Kennedy cherry-pick elements from both categories in search of an elusive third-bowl-of-porridge recipe. The mean girls, the flamboyantly gay best friend, the dumbass jocks and jerkwad teachers (Alan Ruck’s shop-teacher ‘stache deserves its own screen credit), the out-of-her-league-or-is-he Prince Charming, the hallway hierarchies, and OMG slang? Present and accounted for. The partying adolescents in peril, the jump scares followed by screams, the creatively grisly kills and conspicuously splatterrifc results (that buzzsaw death would make the old-school Fangoria brigade proud), the lunatic’s lair decked out in Texas Chainsaw Massacre abattoir chic? All here as well.
What’s surprising is how well these two shared-demographic film types complement each other, and how Freaky works that Venn diagram middle ground, to make this feel so cohesively fun. Horror-comedy is always a dodgy proposition, and for every Evil Dead/Cabin in the Woods/Shaun of the Dead success story, you could point to dozens of cringeworthy examples that don’t get the delicate balance right. The snarkiness here lightens the slasher elements but doesn’t dilute them, and its giddiness keeps the gnarly gorier scenes from feeling like you’ve walked into a slaughterhouse photo spread. Laughter and shrieks both work off of shock principles. You can feel the humor and the terror continually goosing each other here instead of canceling each other, even in the bits that don’t quite work or feel like padding (there’s a sequence involving a supporting character, a stewardess mom and faux-sexual role play that goes on three times as long as it needs to).
Still, so much of the credit belongs to Newton and Vaughn here. The former, so good in the underrated 2018 girl-power gross-out comedy Blockers, arguably gets the easier (or at least less flashy) job, establishing Millie as a young woman on the low end of the social pecking order, burdened with family issues, college aspirations and a lack of self-esteem. Then, once the body swap happens, Newton is mostly called on to look menacing and adopt a sociopathic smirk. But she sells it, especially once the character starts adopting an alpha cool-kid vibe and rocking killer leather jackets to match her literal-killer activities. Watch her dole out vengeance to everyone who’s taunted Millie in her previous mousy incarnation. Newton gets how the timing of these scenes work, along with the predatory physicality. She could very well age into the sort of next-gen Kewpie-screwball comedian that we thought Reese Witherspoon might have become post-Legally Blonde. Or she could comfortably ease into a sarcastic scream-queen side career. Either way, Freaky gives her a wicked showcase to fly her you-know-what flag.
And then there’s Vaughn. The actor has had an interesting third act, going from crazy-sexy-dangerous indie heartthrob and mainstream leading man to elder character actor/neo-exploitation stalwart (see: the bloody-knuckled, one-two punch of S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete). He’s played serial killers before — remember that charismatic turn in 1998’s Clay Pigeons? — but if memory serves correctly, he has never played a 17-year-old young woman trapped in a serial killer’s body before. [Double-checks IMDb.] Nope, he hasn’t. The sheer gusto with which Vaughn throws himself into the Millie-by-proxy role is a thing to behold. There is the run, with his arms flailing and legs flapping like he’d barely passed gym class. There is shyness, coyness, and poetry-reciting flirtiness around the cute jock (Uriah Shelton). There’s the three-way sassiness between Vaughn and Millie’s best-est friends, played by Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich, which hits its apex when the Swingers actor performs an ass-shaking school cheer and a choreographed group handshake. And there’s the discovery that in this new male body, there are surprising perks, like the kind that allows Vaughn to utter a stone-cold truth: “Standing and peeing is kinda rad?”
His commitment to the extended bit that is this high-concept premise works, even when Freaky doesn’t, and if you’d told many of us that there would be a subversive story of female empowerment in a horror-comedy featuring Vaughn as one of two “final girls” and yelling “Shake, bitches!” we’d have thought you were certifiably cuckoo. This is 2020, however, which means all bets are off. It also suggests that while there might not be a franchise in the making here, the film has stumbled across a winning formula. This could open up whole new avenues for its duo. Now let’s see Vaughn do a remake of Clueless. And make Newton the next Batman, you cowards!