What co-writer/director Christopher Landon had managed to skewer with his time looping Happy Death Day, that same principle can now be applied toward his take on the bodyswap comedy with a “roving slasher icon” twist. His sixth film Freaky merges that typical Voorhees/Kruger motif, giving it an unexpectedly glossy sheen ala Clueless. Blending the two doesn’t come with some small blips in the road; chances are if you’ve seen the aforementioned or the original Freaky Friday, then the level of shock or surprise will be sorely lacking.
This latest attempt to shake up the typical serial killer subgenre dynamic certainly makes up for its inherent shortfalls in consistency by putting together a cast determined to cut through the distraction and play to their outlandish strengths. And for high school senior Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), the outlandishness in her life is only about to build in clarity. Bullied by the popular kids and smothered by her workaholic mom (Katie Finneran) and police officer sister (Dana Drori), she must confide in her equally loser-ish friends, Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla (Celeste O’Connor). One year after her father’s tragic death, Millie’s independence is rather stunted, with mom taking charge. Perhaps for the best as there’s a roving criminal, known only to town residents as the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). He breaks loose, and after the homecoming game takes Millie as a victim of a ritual stabbing, using a mysterious Mayan dagger. Since they’re known for their awkward witch spells, the weapon is not exempt from that rule. That’s where the bodyswap storyline enters the room, giving both Millie and the confused murderer 24 hours to switch back.
It certainly isn’t Landon’s fault or that of assisting scribe Michael Kennedy (Bordertown). The pair are conquering the difficult challenge of shaking up the typical serial killer dynamic. They do just that, but at the risk of sacrificing all sort of menace and unexpectedness. As Newton assumes the slasher’s attributes with a delightful grace, the evil bloodshed is never in short supply, with a handful of sinfully pleasing kills making its hard-R rating more than well-earned. Again, that outlandish, outside-the-box inventiveness serves Landon best with props meant to be used drastically, such as tennis rackets, wine bottles, and woodshop saws. That’s certainly the higher lengths taken to sell the motif here; add editor Ben Baudhuin’s (Black Christmas) quick-cutting moves, and a now-standard devilish Bear McCreary (Child’s Play) score, and then it’s a party.
Giving Freaky a certain high school edginess most genre mashups of its kind have been lacking as of late is an admirable attribute. It’s not quite Mean Girls or Varsity Blues. The template those films share is what sets up Millie’s backstory, presenting her as an equal parts’ ugly duckling and possible siren to all the football jocks. What a difference literally half a day can make. The hierarchical subculture is jabbed at an appropriate level, opening a louder dialogue for the inherent gender roles that are exchanged.
Once one can look past the stereotypes Osherovich and O’Connor are playing into, all that remains is Newton and Vaughn walking, driving, running miles into the other’s shoes. Newton, who’s been an acting powerhouse in the making since Lady Bird, is a genuine hoot, enacting revenge with a cartoonish elasticity that will be difficult to surpass if there were to be another horror-comedy in 2020 to challenge. Seeing Vince in action here is more than worth the price of admission, he’s having the most fun here.
In his period of actor’s soul-searching, he’s reached the point where he could finally poke a satirical jab at his former cadence of hit-and-miss a-list comedies. When he’s drilled into the sensibilities of a teenage girl, combined with his naturally jock-ish face, and a clever back-and-forth with Millie’s innocent crush, another of the football hunks (Uriah Shelton), he is in a comfortable, energetic, focused comic zone I personally haven’t seen out of the guy since Dodgeball, tapping back into that shy confidence of his early heyday.
Despite Landon and Kennedy appearing often skittish to lean harder on the genre-shaking curveballs to avoid stale predictability, or focus deeper on the trade-off in gender roles, they can still manage a bit of funny magic in Freaky. It’s not exactly everything it wants to be, but as a horror-comedy landing appropriately enough in most open theaters on Friday the 13th, it’s just the right film at the right time. Were it anyone other than Newton and Vaugh in their respective roles, it wouldn’t feel as timely. Flaws and all, it still strides upon those high school hallways with a gory fury, a heavy dose of snark, and even a bit of heartfelt family bonding. Worth masking up for, just not with the hockey mask, obviously. (B; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Freaky opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for bloody horror violence, sexual content, and language throughout; 101 minutes.