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‘Freaky’ is freakishly good fun

By Aaron Dwyer Body swap stories are nothing new. They’ve been used for horror films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and comedies such as Freaky Friday, but never before has there been a movie that deliberately combined the two. In a gruesome twist on the classic tale, Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) is about to find herself in the body of a wanted murderer. She’s a shy, humble girl, just trying to work up the confidence to make a move on her crush, but the school bully and a tyrannical shop teacher are making that pretty difficult for her. Things only worsen when Millie encounters her town’s fabled serial killer, the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). He stabs her with an enchanted dagger, and this has some weird consequences. The next day, Millie and the Butcher wake up stuck in each other’s bodies. They have 24 hours to switch back before the change is permanent, and those hours are about to comprise the freakiest Friday of her life.  It’s a simple set up, almost deceptively so. You might not think you’re in for a fun ride that stops being hilarious or horrifying only for a sweet, touching moment, but you’d be wrong.

The razor’s edge of horror-comedy

Image from Variety
Freaky is brought to us by Chris Landon, the director of the Happy Death Day movies, themselves a duo of horror-comedies that looked basic until people watched them and realized there was a lot of fun to be had with them; along with some surprising character depth. Continuing this pattern, the first scene of Freaky is a trick—it looks like another boring slasher full of abusive, threadbare characters and gore-tastic kills, but that’s what the movie wants you to think, so it can make fun of that same formula later on. At this point in horror film history, it’s hard to cut the classic tropes wide open, as much as they've already been picked apart, but that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t take plenty of stabs at them. Most notably, the quote exclaimed by one of Millie's friends as they run from her frightening new form, “You’re black, I’m gay, we are so dead!” Meta humor is sprinkled throughout Freaky. It’s sarcastic enough to let you know the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, but not so much that you can’t truly connect to the story or characters. It’s walking a tonal tightrope, and by the end, manages to cross it without ever plummeting into the depths of dissonance.  And since most people know the "Freaky Friday" drill by now, the movie can take plenty of time to develop its characters, which is time well spent. Even if they’re not particularly outstanding, every main character is written with competence, not usually spared for characters that fall into tropes like the gay best friend or the stock love interest. This solid writing is what leads to the surprising emotional core of the film.  For instance, the “teenage girl in an adult man’s body and vice versa” idea could’ve been an unfunny or even offensive disaster. But the movie respects Millie’s character and portrays her as a whole person, not a simple checklist of teenage girl stereotypes. She’s awkward and often a pushover, especially around authority figures, but she’s a loyal friend with likes, dislikes, and eccentricities of her own. In other words, a normal teenage girl. The well-rounded quality lends itself to Vince Vaughn’s excellent performance. It was dubious at first that he would carry off the teenage girl schtick with respect or even believability, but he did all that and more. His typical goofiness comes through for sure, fitting the movie’s tone, but he still gives an impressive performance with a lot of heart as Millie overcomes her inner hurdles. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Millie’s crush was suddenly less into her once she stopped being Vince Vaughn.  Kathryn Newton herself doesn’t have a lot to work with, since the Butcher is mostly a silent and stoic character, but some of her lines are chilling when delivered from the usually demure Millie’s body.  What she does have is people to kill. Lest we forget this is a horror movie, it does earn the R-rating. Freaky’s kills are pretty brutal, ranging from bisection via buzzsaw to a head crushed in a toilet lid, but they’re accomplished quickly enough not to be called excessive. Again, it’s all about striking the right balance.

Basic anatomy

Image from Syfy Wire
But, to get out of the movie’s innards for a moment, what is the surface appeal of Freaky? Well, there’s a ton of it. Despite the number of deaths, this movie is full of life.  Visually, Freaky is perfectly well made. It’s competently shot, with some striking uses of color. The only let-down here is that they spent their most unique set piece in a scene that wasn’t the climax. The buildup to that climax is well structured, with a pace that zips smoothly along, and this is possibly the only movie purporting itself to be a horror-comedy that’s made me laugh so hard since The Cabin In The Woods. It’s not a flawless comedy—the one-liners that are supposed to sound badass don’t always hit right. Most of the real comedy is found in the genuine exchanges between characters and how hard Vince Vaughn is selling the teenager-in-an-adult-body impression.  Additionally, there's not a lot of twists in the plot. Aside from the initial mix of setups, it doesn’t stray far from the plot beats of either a Freaky Friday movie or a typical slasher. Whoever you expect to die will probably die, and whoever you’re hoping to have an emotional reconciliation is most likely hugging by the end. An abundance of originality is not this movie’s strong point, but the watching experience is fun enough. It's hard to be mad at these scenarios having been done before. All in all, it's an update on a classic that’s technically unnecessary, but still makes the best of things without feeling dated.
Images: Syfy Wire, Variety Featured Image: IMDB

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