'Freaky Friday' meets 'Friday the 13th' in this sometimes entertaining, sometimes standard horror-comedy from the director of 'Happy Death Day'.
November 12, 2020
Imagine if Ferris Bueller's Day Off was a horror movie, with the eponymous truant skipping class, flitting around Chicago and narrowly avoiding hordes of zombies that start shuffling around on the same day. Or, maybe Dirty Dancing could get the spooky treatment. No one puts Baby in the corner unless they need to help her combat a demon conjured up by the repressive reaction to all that fancy footwork, perhaps? We should probably stop listing these ideas, because Blumhouse Productions might end up making them a reality. Already, the film company has turned Groundhog Day into a horror flick via Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U. It gave 70s TV series Fantasy Island an unsettling makeover, too, to downright awful results. Now, it's Freaky Friday's turn. Body-swap movies span far beyond films starring Jodie Foster (in 1976) and Lindsay Lohan (in 2003), but given that Freaky sets the bulk of its action on a Friday, it's clearly nodding in the obvious direction.
The movie begins with a prelude on Wednesday the 11th (yes, not only will most of the chaos go down on a Friday, but it'll happen on Friday the 13th). In the opening scene, four small-town high schoolers do what teens do in the first moments of slasher flicks: talk, party and make out in an empty old mansion, then get killed by a mask-wearing psychopath. Before the quartet meets that fate, its members explain who is responsible. The Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) is known to have terrorised the area but, due to a lack of recent murders, the serial killer has mostly become an urban legend of late. Writer/director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day and its sequel) and his co-scribe Michael Kennedy (Bordertown) know that they're sticking to a formula here, and that any viewer who has seen any number of other frightening franchises knows it as well. They're being playful, though, a trait they try to keep up for the rest of the film.
Not only is the Butcher real, but he steals a cursed Aztec dagger that lets him swap bodies with his next victim. So, when Millie (Kathryn Newton, Big Little Lies) crosses his path, she wakes up in his very tall and very male guise the next morning — and vice versa. For the Butcher, who instantly kits out Millie's petite frame in an uncharacteristic red leather jacket and tight jeans, it's a dream. He's already known for offing adolescents, and now he can blend in as one of them. For Millie, it takes some explaining to get her besties (The Goldfinch's Misha Osherovich and Selah and the Spades' Celeste O'Connor) not to scream at her new manly form. And, with the entire town is on the lookout for the Butcher, she's forced to run and hide while she's trying to track down her actual body. Shy, bullied and still mourning the death of her father a year ago, Millie also notices the changes that come with her masculine appearance. She can impose her might on her tormenters (although the Butcher has them in his sights, too), and comments on feeling strong and commanding.
As Millie explains this strangely empowering sensation — after gags about what's now in her pants, expectedly — Freaky adds some depth to its high-concept horror-comedy idea. It calls out society's accepted notions of male power, and makes it plain that women are never seen in the same forceful fashion. Later, Millie shares a tender exchange with her also grief-stricken, often wine-drinking mother (Katie Finneran, Why Women Kill), showing how it's often easier to unburden your problems upon strangers than loved ones. These are astute and accurate observations, as paired with savvy moments. In a far more lived-in way than fellow recent release The Craft: Legacy, the film eagerly inhabits a progressive and accepting world. But not every aspect lands as intended. Another sequence that sees Millie connect with her crush (Uriah Shelton, Girl Meets World) while also still stuck in the Butcher's body too overtly tries to evoke laughs when they kiss, for example.
That patchwork outcome — sometimes things fall into place entertainingly, sometimes they don't — applies to Freaky overall. Given that it sports a big twist right there in its premise, no one should expect a surprise-laden narrative. Still, even though Landon and Kennedy wink and nod as they borrow from other body swap and slasher fare, a movie can be aware of what it's doing, deliver standout moments and elements, and flit between fun and average as well. Freaky is glossily shot, swiftly paced and boasts a memorable graphic match, segueing from a head being slammed by a toilet seat to two teens getting intimate. It's particularly engaging when it ramps up either the gore-splattered horror or the over-the-top comedy. But it also swaps a heap of competing pieces into one package, then appears mostly content to play by the numbers when it comes to relentless serial killers plucking off teens and folks ending up in each other's bodies alike. Oh, and it's mighty keen to make its franchise aspirations well and truly known, too.
As a result, Freaky always feels heavily indebted to its lead casting choices, both of which are top-notch. Without either Vaughn or Newton, the film might've resembled The Hot Chick meets the worst Nightmare on Elm Street sequels rather than Freaky Friday meets Friday the 13th. Vaughn gets the showier role, and demonstrates how shrewdly he's considered what it's like to be a teenage girl, with his version of Millie occasionally proving more fleshed out than the real thing. Newton embraces her fierce and fearsome side as the Butcher and, consequently, it's easy to see why Millie herself is a little impressed by her confidence. Both actors do more than just stick to the movie's clearcut concept, crucially — but Freaky itself could've taken their lead more often, and taken note of its titular term far more as well.
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