Note: The writer of this review watched Freaky from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Countless filmmakers have spent large portions of their careers sorting through a landfill of ’80s nostalgia, picking up rusted bits of neo-Spielbergian scrap and John Hughes detritus, assembling tributes to mainstream culture of a certain age. So credit is due to Freaky director Christopher Landon and his various co-writers for powering his own personal high-concept nostalgia contraptions with real energy and feeling. In Happy Death Day, Landon and screenwriter Scott Lobdell fused a cheesy masked-man ’80s slasher movie with a time-loop self-improvement scenario straight out of Groundhog Day; the sequel threw in alternate timelines explained with Back To The Future Part II references. Now Freaky sets a mad slasher loose into a teenage body-swap comedy. The title and release date function as shorthand for a perfect little portmanteau of a pitch: The movie is really Freaky Friday The 13th.
In case any Happy Death Day skeptics wondered if Landon truly cares about slasher movies, Freaky opens with an extended homage to the genre, complete with multiple killings, elaborate gore, and an affectionate head-tilt toward a famous Michael Myers gesture from the very first Halloween. And in case any Happy Death Day fans wondered if Landon would maintain his exploration of young womanhood beyond that series, Freaky then pivots to a day in the life of Millie (Kathryn Newton), a high school student still quietly grappling with the year-ago death of her father. Her evening comes to a terrifying end when the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), the killer from the bloody opening sequence, stabs her with a ceremonial knife—an attempted sacrifice that he hopes will grant him supernatural powers. Instead, the Butcher wakes up in Millie’s body, and she wakes up in his.
The movie doesn’t cheat with shots showing the “real” Millie as she sees herself; once the swap happens, this teenage girl is fully played by motormouthed comedian turned dissolute character actor Vince Vaughn. Millie scrambles to locate her besties Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Joshua (Misha Osherovich), convince them she’s not really the Butcher, and undo the change before it becomes permanent. In the meantime, the Butcher enjoys his newfound opportunity to infiltrate Millie’s life and rack up a decent body count. Most of this is played for self-aware R-rated farce—though not self-aware enough to acknowledge the absurdity of positioning Newton and her adorably quippy pals as de facto teenage outcasts. Despite the fact that Landon worked on multiple Paranormal Activity sequels that summoned dread and fright from camcorder minimalism, Freaky is more aware of “scary” movie conventions than the mechanics of genuine fear.
On a technical level, the film is a step up from Landon’s previous movies. The lighting is richer and moodier, upgrading visual gags like Millie’s first glimpse of a slasher lair in the broad light of day, while the ample gore looks less like a CG afterthought to be dialed up or down at the MPAA’s behest. Yet despite not actually being a sequel to anything, the movie still falls prey to some of the familiarity that’s dragged down so many slasher franchises. The surprise that Landon has made a sprightly comic horror movie out of a high-concept gimmick is no longer there—nor is Jessica Rothe, whose work in the Happy Death Day movies constitutes a cross-genre tour de force of slapstick comedy, sincere drama, charming romance, and scream-queen energy.
That’s not a knock on the performances in Freaky, though. Vaughn could easily have reduced his teen-girl imitation to a thoughtless caricature, and opts instead to accent the shtick with more subtle touches; it’s especially funny to watch him act out a sudden inability to accommodate extra height. The movie also handles a romantic subplot between Millie and her crush, Booker (Uriah Shelton), with a gentleness that’s almost shocking in its sensitivity. Newton has less to do by design, but she’s both amusing and sinister, revamping Millie’s school persona with as little as a cool red jacket and an inscrutable expression. She lumbers around like a heavier, more lead-footed older man, murdering cardboard cut-out supporting characters with impunity.
In between all the stabbing, Landon chases the surprisingly heartfelt resonance of the Death Day movies, making some frantic shortcuts in the process. In one scene, Millie, in her middle-aged-man guise, has a chat with her emotionally fragile mom (Katie Finneran), and must forge an unexpected emotional connection, accidentally entice her into asking a stranger on a date, and then try to avoid breaking her heart while turning her down, all in the space of a single conversation. It’s a lovely idea with barely enough context to breathe; Finneran has mere minutes of screen time before this moment, though she and Vaughn carry it through by the sheer delicacy of their acting.
The film toys with gender conventions, too. Millie feels unexpectedly empowered by inhabiting a stronger, more physically domineering body, and there’s a dark irony, only partially tapped, in how her experience of maleness comes from walking in the shoes of a deranged serial killer. Freaky sometimes feels reluctant to pull at this thread, lest further ambition interfere with the movie’s fun factor, which is substantial. This is a fast-paced, likable, and silly romp arriving at a time where a horror movie’s memorability tends to correlate with its evocative doominess. Even when Freaky doesn’t live up to its full potential, there’s still something oddly satisfying about unmasking a slasher movie to reveal the ’80s comedy lurking underneath.