Freaky (2020)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2020-12-09 03:39

Written by: Michael Kennedy, Christopher Landon
Directed by: Christopher Landon
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, and Celeste O'Connor

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"Great. We're gonna be killed by Murder Barbie."

For a genre thatís been dismissed as tired and formulaic almost since its inception, the slasher movie has proven to be resilient as its rogues gallery of infamously unkillable maniacs. Multiple generations have seen this genre adapt and shift to appeal to changing tastes and preoccupations. 70s turmoil ceded to 80s anxieties before the genre eventually took a stab at itself in the 90s, while the past couple of decades have been a mixed bag of homages, retreads, and the occasional inventiveness. A sterling example of the latter came courtesy of Christopher Landonís Happy Death Day, a nifty time loop riff that turned the formula on its head: here was a slasher movie that subverted the audienceís bloodlust in favor of a surprisingly touching tale of survival. With Freaky, Landon dips into the high concept well again, this time grafting the slasher movie onto a body switch comedy, and the result is another triumph. Freaky is a gore-soaked riot that also sends the teen movie genre straight to hell: if you ever thought Sixteen Candles was a little too lame because Molly Ringwald didnít dismember Anthony Michael Hall, this is the movie for you.

Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) is a lot like Ringwaldís Sam Baker in that film: a demure, overlooked high school student who doesnít dare to approach her crush, Booker Strode (Uriah Shelton). Her family dramaís much heavier than a forgotten birthday, though: following the sudden death of her father, Millieís mother Coral (Katie Finneran) has retreated to bottles of alcohol, while her sister Char (Dana Drori) has buried herself in her fledgling police career. To make matters worse, homecoming is approaching, and with it comes the old town legend of the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), a serial killer that supposedly haunts the townís annual celebration to kill horny teens. After he butchers four kids at school, Millie learns heís no legend when she runs afoul of him. Brandishing a mystical dagger, he stabs her in the shoulder before she escapes with the help of Char. Her relief quickly melts into horror, however, when she wakes up to learn she and the butcher have swapped bodies--and if she doesnít find him and return the favor with the dagger by midnight, the switch will be permanent.

Like Happy Death Day, Freaky is remarkably grounded despite its outlandish premise. Obviously, the body switch antics are madcap and zany, and the script takes an arch approach to the slasher genre itself, but itís never glib in its treatment of its characters and their world. Millie and her friends, Josh and Nyla (Misha Osherovich & Celeste O'Connor), feel particularly authentic: even if I found myself wondering if these Gen Z caricatures and their idiosyncratic lingo really exist, I couldnít doubt that their camaraderie is genuine. Contemporary critics no doubt held the same reservations about Scream and its ilk a quarter-century ago, and Freaky dispels those concerns with similarly captivating performances. Crafting a cast of characters and a world that feels instantly real and lived-in has quickly become one of Landonís signatures, and it lets him hit the ground running and indulge his high concept hooks to their fullest potential.

One of the sharpest decisions here is to avoid the typical hemming and hawing you might see with a body switch comedy. Millie doesnít spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince her friends of whatís happened, as the script provides some predictable shortcuts in this regard (when you see Millie and her friendsí intricate handshake routine, you know how itís going to work). Once Millie and the Butcher switch bodies, Freaky plays up the obvious humor of watching the gangly, 6í5Ē Vaughn take on the mannerisms of a teenage girl, all the while exploiting the suspense of Newton becoming the cold, calculating Butcher with an impulse to murder everyone he encounters.

Both performances are remarkable, with Vaughnís proving to be the more showy of the two and allowing him to tap into his comedic talents in a way he hasnít in recent years. With the lilt in his voice and his animated facial tics, he captures Millieís personality to a T, which is exactly why it works. If he played it even a touch more broadly, the performance might become a farce; instead, he creeps right to the edge and pulls back during crucial moments, like during an impromptu confessional scene when Millie encounters her mother while sheís hiding out in a dressing room. His ability to push a gag just far enough before yanking the audience back with unexpected pathos has become a hallmark of Landonís career so far. And while Freaky is ultimately too sprightly to dwell on these heavier moments (not to mention the gender musings that naturally arise when a teenage girl suddenly inhabits the body of a huge white guy), itís the right call here.

Freaky is thoughtful without being heavy-handed and ponderous because it knows itís other chief pleasure is turning Newton loose as the Butcher. Her performance is more subtle than Vaughnís but is no less delightful as the Butcher commandeers her body and her wardrobe, transforming her overnight from the quiet girl who gets bullied to a confident vixen who draws all of the boysí attention with a slo-mo saunter usually reserved for girls who have received makeovers in teen movies. Newton goes for broke during the switch: with a devious glimmer twinkling in her eye, she leads Millieís classmates to the slaughter, targeting the mean girls and meat-headed jocks. Freaky has its cake and eats it too because it just so happens that the Butcher crosses paths with everyone who torments her, including a tyrannical shop teacher (a slimy Alan Ruck, in a nice nod to the John Hughes of it all).

The Butcher delivers the carnage, too. One of the undeserved knocks against Happy Death Day was the PG-13 rating that limited the on-screen gore, but thatís definitely not an issue here. Landon clearly understands the appeal of this genre boils down to painting the walls red with creatively splashed crimson, and Freaky is unrepentantly gory. The Butcher turns Millieís school into a demented funhouse, where the shop room buzz saws and the athletic trainerís cryo-chamber (yes) become grisly murder weapons. The splatter is squeamish and outrageous as Landon evokes the era of the over-the-top slasher that invited audiences to delight in the increasingly ludicrous mayhem.

The prologue here is admittedly concerning: it opens with a cheeky ďWednesday the 11thĒ title card before introducing a quartet of borderline obnoxious kids who trade campfire tales and barbs until the Butcher starts ramming wine bottles down their throats. Itís a little too glib and borders on parody, leaving you to wonder if this is more of a post-Stab movie rather than a post-Scream movie: a slasher thatís so self-aware that it edges on farce. Thankfully, Landon dials it back down from this point, crafting a slasher thatís sharp but light on its feet, heightened (ďYouíre black, Iím gay, weíre both dead,Ē Josh quips as he and Nyla flee the Butcher) but not condescending. Maybe itís more accurate to call it a self-actualized slasher: a movie that knows whatís expected of it and is more than happy to serve it up with a heaping helping of candy-flavored Karo syrup, cool needle-drops, and slick photography.

But even more importantly, Freaky is just as committed to being a teen movie. Forgive the obvious clichť, but I would have gladly hung out with these characters in a normal body switch comedy. Hell, I probably would have had a good time watching them in just a teen comedy free of any gimmickry. Newton, OíConner, and Osherovich have a natural chemistry, and Landon weaves a nice tale about a young woman finding herself through all of this carnage. Maybe itís nothing we havenít seen before, but itís a lot more fun when chainsaws are involved.

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