From the mind that brought us the time-loop/slasher fun of Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U comes Freaky, a twisted spin on the body-swap comedy. Sadly, while the premise has some killer potential, the execution is horrifyingly flawed.
Co-written and directed by Happy Death Day‘s Christopher Landon, Freaky is essentially Freaky Friday meets Friday The 13th. In the cozy town of Blissfield Valley, teens are gearing up for homecoming weekend. This means underage drinking, hooking up, and unearthing the urban legend of the Blissfield Butcher, who loves to slaughter high schoolers. Cue a towering Vince Vaughn as a masked serial killer who crashes the party with gruesome results. His requisite Final Girl will be Millie (Blockers’ Kathryn Newton), a sullen wallflower who is targeted by mean girls, bullying boys, and then…the Blissfield Butcher. However, a magical McGuffin throws this trope for a loop, by tossing Millie into the Butcher’s body.
This spin places Millie (now played by Vaughn) into a doubly-dangerous position. Not only must she face down this savage slayer (now played by Newton) to stop him from killing off her classmates, but also she must do so while ducking the police on the hunt for the notorious face she’s wearing. Meanwhile, the Butcher is giving Millie’s body a badass makeover and using her feminine allure to approach new victims without suspicion. It’s such a good premise, with unique challenges folded into the slasher standard, plus opportunities to explore the privileges lost and found in having a white, cis-man appearance. However, Freaky doesn’t get that deep. Instead, it’s deeply superficial.
First up, much of the physical comedy borne of the body-swap is of the “OMG! I have balls!” variety. As Millie, Vaughn repeatedly laments being so big (running into tree branches) and that testicles kicked are quite tender! Beyond that, Vaughn’s portrayal of Millie feels frustratingly thoughtless. He lifts his voice in a shallow impersonation of a breezy girl, which is not how Newton plays Millie in act one. His physicality swaps from firm and imposing to limp-wristed and flailing. It’s the kind of performance you see misogynistic middle-schoolers deliver to mock classmates. Maybe Vaughn didn’t intend to make a joke of Millie. Three EARNEST monologues in her voice suggest he – or at least screenwriters Christopher Landon and Michael Kennedy – wanted to breathe inner life into the thinly sketched heroine. However, none of this comes together into a remotely authentic character. Instead, it seems a lazy smattering of good girl stereotypes, collected from afterschool specials, teen tearjerkers, and sexist ’80s comedies that treated women like objects or obstacles instead of people.
All of this is incredibly frustrating, because it wasn’t that long ago that Jack Black made such a body-swap hilarious and heartfelt in 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. There, the dramatic contrast between his body and the attitude of a cocky teen queen made for an exhilaratingly entertaining experience. Here, Vaughn and Landon settle on cheap jokes and a slathering of schmaltz, and it’s a real shame. Worse yet, they absolutely waste Newton.
I cannot stress enough how ill-defined Millie is as a character. She’s presented as a misfit in a clunky outfit of dull colors and clashing patterns, topped with a tumble of uncombed hair. A sneering jock calls her a “but-her-face”, implying she’s ugly. So, you might well wonder if these kids are blind, because even in a blah outfit Millie still looks like Kathryn Newton, who is inarguably gorgeous. The filmmakers didn’t even do a She’s All That-level make-under, where glasses, ponytail, and paint splotches proclaimed LOSER! But worry not, Millie isn’t only defined by her appearance but also by her friends… who are paper-thin stereotypes.
“You’re black and I’m gay! We are so dead!” cries one of Millie’s friends as they flee from the Butcher. This isn’t just a meta joke about slasher tropes; it’s chiefly how these two are defined. Josh (Misha Osherovich) is the sassy gay friend who endlessly makes crass comments about sex, rape, and genitalia because did I mention he’s the sassy gay friend? Being gay and cracking inappropriate jokes is all there is to the character. Frankly, it feels as if Landon and Kennedy shoved such one-liners his way to use his queerness as a shield from criticism. But this kid is in school, not a drag brunch, so outrageous quips don’t play. In contrast, Nyla’s (Celeste O’Connor) chief character trait is being the “word police,” who corrects Josh only to get eye-rolls back. She also listens to Millie talk and runs around a lot.
While all three young actors bring energy to these roles, they can’t keep this premise from running out of steam. Vaughn as a squeally girl gets old fast, especially as he shares no chemistry with Osherovich, O’Connor, or wide-eyed Uriah Shelton, who plays Millie’s crush. Making matters worse, Landon can’t seem to decide how he feels about the movie’s key moments. For instance, when Booker learns Millie is in the Butcher’s body, a ponderous heart-to-heart is followed by an awkward kiss during which Vaughn pitches his body to block the audience’s view of their lips meeting. Was this meant to show Millie’s discomfort in kissing from a killer’s body? Or was it intended to coddle viewers who might be freaked out by a same sex kiss? If so, was this kiss meant to be a homophobic joke? As it is, it’s not funny or sweet or clear – it’s just odd.
Likewise, the kills swiftly move from sensational to strange. The best bit of Freaky is the cold open, which shrewdly pulls several cues from the Casey Becker sequence of Scream. Here, the Butcher is a silent stalking presence, who – in a uniquely thrilling twist – uses improvised weapons to create gory kills. However, once the plot actually kicks in, he becomes predictable, carrying a knife and slinging chainsaws, instead of plucking up around-the-house items for homicidal carnage. Then, instead of random victims, the Butcher (in Millie’s body) ends up targeting her bullies. Perhaps these kills are meant to feel cathartic, allowing the audience the vicarious thrill of seeing bullies get a bloody comeuppance. However, it also means the stakes for much of the film are wildly low, as no character we care about is at risk for much of the running time.
To her credit, Newton throws herself into the glowering killer role, which is most effective and fun in a kitchen scene where mundane domesticity gets a macabre comic bend. However, the screenwriters undercut her by making the Butcher nearly monosyllabic. That is until Vaughn is back in the role for the finale. Then, all of a sudden the Butcher has a whole lot to say in yet another goddamn monologue.
This is all profoundly disappointing. With Happy Death Day, Landon offered charismatic ingénue Jessica Rothe a star-launching role that allowed her to play drama, comedy, and horror histrionics, all while delivering a wildly entertaining genre mash-up. Here, he has Newton, who has offered solid performances in Blockers, Three Billboards, Big Little Lies, and – yes – Detective Pikachu. Yet, he saddles her with a role so underwritten all it needed was a hot body. Then, in a screenplay that feels hasty and half-hearted, he pitched all the jokes, all the sentimental schlock, and so, so much of the screen-time over to the big name: Vince Vaughn. And that dude whiffed so hard you can feel the breeze through the TV screen.
Simply put, Freaky sucks.
“Freaky” is in theaters Friday.